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Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch
Published: November 8, 2000
Section: Henrico Plus
Page: L-4

Coach for life

Rinaldi takes turn with Hawks

Al Rinaldi storyBY DAVID LAWRENCE
Times-Dispatch Correspondent

The thrill might be gone for bluesman B.B. King, but it never left legendary football coach Al Rinaldi.

Fifty years after he began coaching and 18 years after he retired, Rinaldi is back on the sidelines helping another generation of youths learn the fundamentals of the game -- as a volunteer with Pocahontas Middle School.

The Hawks are fielding their first team. The coaching staff and players have much to learn, so head coach Mark Esposito -- an area attorney -- wasted no time calling on a longtime friend.

"He did a lot of pro bono work for me," Rinaldi joked, "so now it's time for me to do some for him."

The 75-year-old Rinaldi has responded in typical fashion. He shows up four times a week for practices and games. He advises the coaches on how to set up the program, conduct practices and divide responsibilities. He helps the players learn proper playing techniques as well as discipline.

"He does it for free," Esposito said. "He doesn't have a grandkid on the team. He comes back because he likes football -- no, he loves football. He's past liking it."

Rinaldi's coaching career in Virginia began in 1951 at Warrenton High School. Three years later, he began one of two stellar runs at Highland Springs High. The first ended with a state title in 1961. During the second, from 1973-78, he helped unite a school community coping with the effects of integration.

His career at Highland Springs ended with a classic battle for the state title against Annandale -- the Springers lost 14-13.

Rinaldi officially retired from coaching from J.R. Tucker after the 1982 season with a 191-76-13 record.

Lewis Hass -- whose son, Matthew, plays for the Hawks -- attended Huguenot Academy from 1975-78 and remembers Rinaldi's glory years as head coach.

He says Rinaldi has been a good influence on the team.

"They might not appreciate it now, but if they go on and play in high school and go further and play in college, they'll remember the techniques that he's teaching them," Hass said. "From the start of practices to now, I think it's rubbed off. They understand where he's coming from. I think it will pay dividends down the road . . . maybe not now, but later."

Esposito says the players may have been surprised at how tough Rinaldi turned out to be.

"He's like a grandfatherly influence to them, but he's just tough as he can be on them," Esposito said. "I'll tell you, it's something that they need."

Rinaldi says coaching methods have changed considerably.

"Now, we have water breaks," he said. "We must be careful, and we have to be politically correct.

"Back in the '50s and '60s, you could say anything and the kids would say 'Ryes sir, no sir.' "

For the most part, the change has been good, he said.

"I think being more alert and more understanding of people's feelings is good," he said. "I was guilty of that. I think I was never physically abusive, but I was too verbally abusive."

There is a downside, to the kinder, gentler treatment.

"I think the bad part is the fact that these kids don't really get more of an understanding of what it is to be disciplined. . . . Especially in schools where there is not a father figure, I think the kids want more discipline. They want to be fussed at more, to see that you care. But you have to be careful."

Esposito admires Rinaldi's efforts.

"He's done a really nice job with these kids," Esposito said. "They are so raw - some of them didn't know how to put pads in their pants. So I got Al out here and said, 'Al whatever you can do to help, we'll take.' "

Esposito said Rinaldi's main contribution to the team has been a positive attitude that has buoyed the players through an uneven season. Rinaldi's positive attitude is fueled by an unflagging passion for the game.

"Wouldn't it be nice to get a passion that could tide you for 50 years," Esposito said, "with the energy to go with it."