Thomas Jefferson football program mourns former coach Garrity

Thursday, December 21, 2017 | 11:27 PM

There have been eight head football coaches in school history at Thomas Jefferson.

In terms of years of service, Jack Garrity's didn't last too long. He guided the TJ football program for four seasons, from 1990-93.

But his impact was deep-rooted, and prolific; Garrity's presence is felt in the program to this day.

The beloved husband of Carlene (Vahs) Garrity for 46 years, Garrity died peacefully Dec. 14 after battling a respiratory illness for many years. He taught in the Steel Valley School District for three decades, and held coaching positions at Steel Valley and Thomas Jefferson high schools.

“He had been sick for many years but was such a fighter that he would not let it affect what he loved to do,” said Bill Cherpak, athletic director and head football coach at Thomas Jefferson. “After he retired as a teacher and head coach, he helped me after I got the head job at TJ. He coached quarterbacks, running backs, and just about every other position. He had such a great relationship with all the kids.

“As he got sicker over time, he still continued to help even if it was just on game days. He would come to the home games and go in the booth with the other coaches. It was just great to have him around; he was such an inspiration to the kids and coaches. He never complained and was always upbeat and positive. In the end, his lungs just wore down, and he had breathing problems. That is what ultimately led to his death.”

After attending Alderson Broaddus, Garrity began his coaching career at Steel Valley with his longtime friend, George Novak, then the Ironmen head coach who later coached at Woodland Hills. Garrity coached with Novak for eight seasons.

“Jack and I went to Munhall High School together,” Novak said. “He was my running backs coach and weight room instructor; he was like an assistant head coach. He was one of the finest coaches I ever worked with in my 40 years as a coach. I have so much respect for him as a coach, and as a teacher he really cared about and had a lot of respect for the students. He was like a father. A lot of the kids were really, really close with him. I was really close with him. He is the godfather of my oldest son, Tyler.

“He was just a great, great person. He taught kids about life and how to live it, He was just an outstanding person. I can't say enough good things about him.”

After Bap Manzini retired as Thomas Jefferson's field boss following the 1980 WPIAL championship season, the Jaguars experienced a playoff drought that lasted 10 years.

Following a 2-8 record in his first season at TJ in 1990, Garrity guided the Jaguars to 10-1 and 10-2 marks and WPIAL playoff berths in 1991 and 1992.

TJ was 7-3 overall in 1993, Garrity's final year as coach, but one of the assistants on his staff was a young and energetic guy with the last name of Cherpak.

Two years later, in 1995, Cherpak took over as TJ's head coach. The Jaguars have not missed the playoffs since.

“Coach Garrity is the person most responsible for me getting into coaching,” said Cherpak, who previously had worked as a funeral director at R.V. Anderson Funeral Home in Homestead. “When he got the head coaching job at TJ, he asked me to help him as an assistant. That is what began my coaching career.”

Cherpak has been TJ's coach for 23 seasons, compiling a 247-45 overall record with seven WPIAL championships and three PIAA titles. He is the all-time winningest coach in TJ football history, and ranks among the winningest coaches in WPIAL football history.

“If not for coach Garrity, I may not even be coaching today,” Cherpak said. “He was on coach (George) Novak's staff that coached me at Steel Valley. I always had a great relationship with him throughout high school, and then it just grew as I became an assistant coach for him. He was not only a mentor but a close friend. He had such a positive impact on the lives of so many people, I can't even count. He started it all at TJ. I can't even put into words how important he has been in my life. I wouldn't be the person I am today without coach Garrity.

“And his wife Carlene is an absolute angel. She was his everything. They didn't have children of their own, but every kid that he coached was treated like his own. He was truly unique and will never be forgotten.”

Cherpak's right-hand man over the years has been assistant Frank Brettschneider, the Jaguars' offensive coordinator who retired from coaching prior to the 2017 season. Brettschneider coached at TJ for 22 years. Before that, he was an assistant for Garrity at TJ, and an assistant for Novak at Steel Valley.

Brettschneider, who like Garrity played football at Munhall High School, was effusive in his thoughts about Garrity.

“We all develop our character and our philosophies from the experiences we have in our lives — some good, some bad, some indifferent,” Brettschneider said. “Jack Garrity was an outstanding teacher, coach and contributing member to the community because of the experiences he had early in his life.

“Jack was four years older than me and I didn't know him in high school, although I knew of him. I played football with his younger brother Andy at Munhall. Jack was an incredible athlete and pound-for-pound there was no better high school football player. Unfortunately, Jack didn't have a very successful high school career as a football player. He had a horrible experience as his team lost every game for a number of years, and it wasn't fun. Practice was degrading, games were embarrassing, and morale was at an all-time low. Jack never gave up and he gave all of his efforts for the team. He would always remember that experience. He shared those sad experiences with me so often. It was through those experiences that he vowed to make sure that no student-athlete would have to endure what he and his teammates endured for so many ears.

“Jack modeled every day in the classroom and on the football field (with) hard work, commitment and teamwork. Every coach will echo those words. but few modeled them with the same passion as Jack. He valued every student in the classroom and every athlete on the field. So many people forget he was equally committed to be the best educator, as well as coach, he could possibly be. He never took shortcuts and he made sure that students and athletes didn't either.”

Brettschneider lived a block away from Garrity in Pleasant Hills for nearly 20 years. They became close friends.

“I started working with Jack as a 21-year-old assistant coach. It was the start of an incredible friendship on and off the football field,” Brettschneider said. “I coached for 40 years, and when I think of Jack I don't think of him as an outstanding coach, I think of him as an outstanding coach and educator. His abilities and passion were always evident in the classroom as well as on the field. He valued both professions and gave his all to each. In those 40 years, I have not met many colleagues who have demonstrated that ability to the level he had.

“Jack's coaching philosophy was very simple. He wanted every player to have fun and enjoy the experience. Next, he wanted to make sure that they put themselves in positions to win and be successful. He wanted to give all the kids that positive experience he didn't have. He did that as an assistant coach at Steel Valley and as a head coach at Thomas Jefferson. Working with him at both schools, I can personally attest to the strong commitment to both having fun and being successful.”

According to Brettschneider, Garrity over the years was like a second father to many of his students and athletes.

“Jack valued every student-athlete and the role they played as a team member. He valued every coach and the role they played in developing each player. He let his coaches coach, and he held them accountable,” Brettschneider said. “Jack insisted that all student-athletes represent themselves well in school, on the field and in the community. He was a second father to so many of our young people. My son Aaron, as well as so many former players, continued contact with him over all these years.

“Jack loved and cared for kids. Kids aren't stupid; they know when your heart is with them for the long-haul and when it is not. Kids knew that Coach G had his heart with them as long as his heart beat. Talk to any one of his players from the mid-70s through (recent years), they all reflect on the same resoundingly theme, ‘Coach G was always in my corner. I had so much fun. I loved football so much because of him.'

“Jack's coaching strategies may have changed and evolved over the years. However, Jack's coaching philosophies, his expectations for high school student-athletes, and his love and care for all the kids never changed. They remained the priorities throughout his life.

“He's one of a kind, one that I loved and one I will miss dearly. I am so blessed to have had him as a colleague and a friend. His tenure at TJ was the beginning of the great story it is today.”

Dom DeCicco played football at Thomas Jefferson from 2004-06, and is considered one of the greatest athletes to wear a TJ football uniform. He played wide receiver, quarterback, safety, cornerback and kick/punt returner, and was called one of the most diverse athletes in the state his senior year when he eclipsed 1,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, and also returned a kick and punt for a touchdown.

During DeCicco's career, the Jaguars won two WPIAL titles, one PIAA championship, two conference crowns, finished as a WPIAL runner-up once, and posted a 39-5 overall record.

“Coach Garrity meant a lot to me,” DeCicco said. “He is someone who I spent a lot of time with when I was in high school. I even wrote a paper in high school about how much he meant to me and my brothers, along with the positive impact he had on my life in the short time.

“He was someone who like myself was competitive to the highest degree and wanted to win, but made sure it was done the right way. He taught accountability, selflessness and respect of the game of football.”

Following his high school graduation, DeCicco continued his career as an all-conference strong safety at Pitt, then played in the NFL for Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota.

“I kept in contact with coach Garrity throughout my college and NFL careers, always picking his brain for advice on and off the field,” said DeCicco, who now is employed as a scouting assistant in the San Francisco 49ers football organization. “We ended up being neighbors the last couple years of his life in Jefferson Hills, and he and his wife would often have my fiancé and I over for dinner.

“The dude had a huge personality and was as funny as they come. He never once complained to me about the pain he was going through while he was fighting the sickness, but rather talked smack and let me know he's the baddest 90-pound person walking around. He had the best stories and was as tough as they come. I love the guy, privileged to have had him in my life, and will never forget him. He started the winning tradition at TJ, and he made sure it was done the right way.”

A Celebration of Life event for Garrity is planned for a future date.

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.


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