CLARKSVILLE — The gathering on Gene Sartini Field on Friday morning, with former players all coming together as a team to carry their former coach the 100 yards to the end zone at Providence High School, followed by a giant energetic huddle, seemed to embody the former Pioneer coach’s mission.
Several former players have discussed his ability to motivate and inspire his players. That innate ability was there for the entirety of his 40 years as the Pioneers’ head coach. The Providence football family was together and reliving some of those memories of a time in their lives Gene Sartini helped make unforgettable, several decades of players among the 200 or so in attendance Friday agreed.
Pete Carrao was a senior captain on Sartini’s first Providence team in 1971, a team that went 8-1.
“The speech before the Jeff game my senior year, it was our opening game. Gene was very calm and was talking about how in all his years as a player and coach, he’d never lost an opening game. He was walking around the room. It was kind of lowkey and all of a sudden he turned around and he hit the training table — and there was a hole in that training table from then on — and said ‘and by damn, we’re not gonna lose now.’ We probably busted the door down and went out and shut Jeff out to start our season. He made us believers and was able to do that his whole career,” Carrao said.
While that motivation was there on game day, it was equally imposing during the day-to-day grind of practice.
“He expected perfection. If you didn’t get it, you were gonna get it. He made sure you learned it,” said 1988 Providence grad Tom Kennady, donning a tattered No. 99 Providence jersey Friday morning.
The inspiration alum Ben Rodway received from Sartini stuck with him throughout his life and military career, he said.
“To me, he taught me to get up. If there was a ball, you get on the ball, get on the ball. But once you were always down, you got up. Always get up. Sometimes in life, that can be hard. If anything, coach taught us to get up,” Rodway said.
Adam Theobold, a running back on the 1993 state runner-up team, said you had to be willing to follow Sartini’s lead to receive the treasure of improving at football — and life lessons.
“He played everybody. He coached to promote the game of football. He wanted you to know the game of football and love the game of football and love playing. I’m not gonna say I enjoyed practice every day, but you were always gonna learn something and you were gonna play hard and give maximum effort because that’s what coach expected. The guys that stuck around were that much better,” Theobold said.
“He wanted things to be right,” Carrao said. “He wanted things to be perfect. I played linebacker and center. We made certain checks. You did everything exactly how you taught him to do it. He pushed us to be better than we were. He pushed us to take personal responsibility for what we did. He was tough. Back in the old days, it was a different world than it is now.”
Theobold described Sartini as an authoritative leader who was also fair.
“A lot of people saw, and coach was — he was a disciplinarian — but he always took everything in the context of how it happened. If you did wrong and owned up to it, he understood it. You paid your penalty and you moved on. He was willing to give people a second chance. I’ve always taken that with me. His life lessons and how to do things right the first time. He wasn’t just coaching football, he was coaching life. He was a teacher but he was gonna teach you how to live the faith, family and football — or life. He was an inspiration. Other than my father, he was one of the most important male figures in my life,” Theobold said.
Providence had football tradition prior to Sartini but he was the perfect fit to carry it on for 40 years. The family atmosphere in the program was something Sartini thrived at enhancing.
Mike Hublar, class of 1982, followed his father Al into the Providence football tradition.
“Just being under the Providence legacy was something everyone looked forward to. Playing at CYO as a grade-school child is something everyone looked forward to. Gene had a unique ability to motivate boys at that age. You wanted to please Gene and it helped you to do more than you thought you were able to do,” Hublar said, adding with a chuckle, Sartini’s words that are etched in his memory. “By damn, get up off the field Hublar. Hit somebody. He was a great motivator and great inspiration.”
Carrao described in the powerful example that Sartini set as his boys grew into men.
“When my father passed away in 1992, Gene and his staff were the first ones there. When my mother passed away eight years ago, those guys were there for me again. You didn’t have to be one of his football players. If you were one of his students, he was there for you,” Carrao said.
Rodway said he was thrilled but not surprised by the turnout at Sartini Field.
“To me, I didn’t go to any of my high school reunions but I came to this. This is my fraternity, my brotherhood. I’m in the military, it’s kind of like this, those guys that I served with. I would show up at an event like this any day. It’s a celebration as well as a testament to what he did for a lot of young men in this area,” Rodway said.