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McGRATH: St. Rita’s ‘Coach’ shows us life, the right way

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‘Lifer’’ is a word that gets tossed around sports too easily, like ‘‘legendary.’’

Tony La Russa was called a ‘‘lifer’’ when he retired from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, with some justification — he spent 49 of his 67 years in professional baseball.

But there are lifers and there are lifers. For 33 of those years, La Russa flew charter, stayed in four-star hotels and dined on gourmet salads as a vegetarian major-league manager. Not a bad life.

A guy who spends 42 years in high school classrooms and 35 on dusty prep football fields as an assistant coach is a different sort of lifer. A legendary lifer? That sounds right to Jim ‘‘Coach’’ Angsten’s countless friends and former players.

‘‘Coach knew how to treat people,’’ said John O’Neil, the director of development at St. Rita, who is both. ‘‘He led by example. He knew the right way to do things, and he was going to teach you the right way. It was non-negotiable.’’

Non-negotiable? The reference made Coach smile. He didn’t distance himself from it.

‘‘Kids like toughness and honesty, and if they get that from you, they’ll let you in,’’ he said. ‘‘If you want to know why you’re not playing, come and ask. But you’ve got to be able to handle it. If you know your assignments and you play as hard as you can, you’ll get on the field. I don’t know anyplace that doesn’t work. I wouldn’t want to be anyplace that didn’t work.’’

Now 65, the Coach remains frozen in time as an indomitable force of nature to those who experienced him. But they have to catch themselves and not refer to him in the past tense. Last year, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disorder that attacks nerve cells responsible for muscle control. There is medication for the symptoms but no cure. Coach is using his relentless energy to stave off deterioration.

‘‘The thing about this is you get tired,’’ he conceded. ‘‘I take a nap every day.’’

He also drives his pickup from his Tinley Park home to St. Rita every morning to teach two gym classes, help around the office and serve as father figure/big brother to students and staff. His guilty pleasure is a few mid-afternoon hours soaking up the warmth of Teehan’s Pub, a neighborhood joint where he nurses a Bud Light on a corner stool and regales the regulars.

‘‘The place wouldn’t be what it is without him — he’s such a friendly guy,’’ bartender Dolores Maier said. ‘‘He won’t let being sick affect him. You ask him how he’s doing and he says, ‘Never better.’ And he’s totally a teacher. Even the guys his own age are always asking him, ‘Coach, what’s this all about?’ ’’

A cane helps with the walking, and Coach’s drill sergeant voice has grown raspy, but his mind is unfailingly sharp, as evidenced by an uncanny recall of such game details as a ref’s blown call in St. Rita’s 21-20 loss to St. Laurence before 21,000 fans at Soldier Field in October 1979.

‘‘Our first loss in a year and a half,’’ Coach grumped. ‘‘On my birthday.’’

Just as sharp is his recall of those who helped shape him, like Dan Lalowski, a Chicago cop who transformed a ragtag group of Welles Park sandlotters into the first team Coach ever played on. He was hooked. He would compete in four sports at St. George High School and earn a football scholarship to Western Illinois, where he intended to study accounting. But Lalowski’s example made too strong an impression.

“People like him are why you want to do things like work with kids,’’ Coach said. ‘‘It’s what adults should do. In Catholic schools, it’s certainly not the money.’’

Sometimes it’s about digging four-foot holes to install goalposts, which was Coach’s first job as freshman football coach at Montini. After seven years there, it was on to St. Rita, where the intensity of Catholic League competition made him feel at home.

Coach has been married to Pam for 39 years. They have a son and two daughters, each of whom has given them one grandson and two granddaughters, which appeals to Coach’s sense of order.

The family will be among those converging on St. Rita next Saturday to salute the Coach, maybe raise a few dollars for medical bills, but mostly to say thanks. If a small fraction of those whom Coach has influenced show up, they’ll have a turnaway crowd.

That’s not a bad life, either.

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