September 6th, 2011
Hyland's Heroes: Ray Nowacki
"Watching them grow..." keeps Nowacki returning in 30th year
One of the major traits of every Hyland’s Hero featured on LousivilleCathoilcSports.com is humility. The topic of this week’s column, Ray Nowacki, is no exception.
Having devoted 30 years of service to the Our Mother of Good Counsel/St. Mary’s football program, Nowacki’s consistent, no-nonsense approach to coaching comes complete with a simple start and a dedication to continue giving back to his school, his church and his community.
The middle of five children, Nowacki grew up in the Our Mother of Good Counsel (OMGC) parish. He got his start coaching there on a bit of a lark during his senior year at Trinity high school.
“I helped out with 5th grade team when I was a senior and my younger brother was in 5th grade at Mother of Good Counsel,” he said. “My dad was big volunteer at the church and always involved. He served on the booster club at the school as well. I always loved to coach and that’s what got me started, helping out my little brother’s team.
“I was a volunteer at Trinity and I helped coach my brother’s baseball team,” he continued. “I don’t know why they asked me to coach football (at OMGC), I just said yes. I was always involved with the younger kids because of my brother.”
An honorable reason, to be sure, and Nowacki hasn’t stopped since. At 47 years old and with 30 years of volunteer coaching under his belt, he’s already close to gaining legendary status. As a youth, though, basketball and baseball were his priorities. He never played football, but caught the coaching bug for that game and looked for as much help as he could get.
“I learned how to coach football by going to clinics,” said Nowacki. “But mostly I learned how to coach from the guys I worked with over the years.”
A certain rhythm comes with long-time coaches. Their year gets marked by the season they coach. And Nowacki’s no different. Head coach of the 7th/8th grade team at OMGC/St. Mary’s since 1998, he feels compelled to work with the kids and see them develop.
“Working with the kids is what brings me back every year,” he said. “I enjoy working with them, watching them grow and succeeding in high school. Some kids have gone on to play college. The rewards of seeing them growing and maturing are enough for me. I’ve had two or three of my kids help me out over the years. Mark McGrath and several others. McGrath played for me in ‘92 and ’93, then played at Trinity and eventually coached with me for four or five years.”
He likens the football to life in that there are many life lessons gained from coaching and playing the sport. Like any team sport, football can build an individual and collective character in a unique setting for kids.
“Football teaches you more about life than anything else,” he stated. “And for the past 10 years or so our team motto has been never, ever give up. Just keep trying and keep going. No matter what life puts in front of you just keep at it and bust down those walls and never, ever give up.”
Specifically, Nowacki talks about those traits that are unique to the toughness of the sport.
“The game teaches you to get back up when you’ve been knocked down,” he said. “You’re going to get knocked down a lot, so you’ve got to have the courage to get back up and keep going. It teaches you teamwork. It’s a team-oriented sport. It teaches you to trust others and to work together. A lot of kids today would rather sit at home and play video games, but these kids are out there sweating and developing friendships. You make life-long friendships and that helps kids grow. And through all of that, it builds a lot of character.”
Having had the good fortune to coach his son, Nowacki’s enjoyed several highlights throughout his coaching career. None more so than in 2003 when his OMGC team won the Toy Bowl. But a more lasting impression from that championship season came from a speech given to the team by a friend of then-assistant coach Tony Fink.
“Before the Toy Bowl championship game in 2003, coach Fink brought a friend of his to speak to the players,” recalled Nowacki. “His friend had fought diabetes for years and talked to the kids about never, ever giving up. He told us that he’d been giving last rites three or four times and still survived. When he died a few years ago, we had green bands made up with ‘Never, ever give up’ inscribed on them. His speech had a profound effect on all of us and it has been our team’s motto ever since.”