Monday Q&A: Downey High teacher talks about Modesto homelessness, faith and sports

snowicki@modbee.comDecember 29, 2013 

— Tony Ippolito, 54, is a second-career teacher and former coach at Thomas Downey High School. He and his wife, Colleen, moved to Modesto shortly after they were married. Colleen Ippolito taught at Orangeburg Christian School, and her husband worked as a personnel supervisor at a local cannery.

A dad at one of Colleen Ippolito’s parent-teacher conferences, Mike Ford, was wearing a wrestling T-shirt when Tony stopped by to see his wife. Tony, a high school and college wrestler, began talking about the sport with Ford, a longtime area wrestling advocate and referee. That conversation eventually led to Joe Gregori hiring Ippolito as a walk-on coach at Downey High School in 1985 to restart the defunct wrestling program.

“I had never coached before,” Ippolito said. “Downey scrounged up about 20 boys who were interested in wrestling. I remember our very first match at Livingston High School. We had no uniforms and knew no mat-side etiquette. Their team was sitting orderly at the side of the mat, while my team was standing in long T-shirts and baggy shorts and tennis shoes, taunting the other team and looking like a street gang staring down their enemies. I was really embarrassed, but only for myself for not preparing them for this. We had a lot of learning to do.”

Three years later, Gregori suggested that Ippolito get his teaching credential. He did, and joined the staff as a business teacher. During his years at Downey, he also has coached football, baseball, cross-country and tennis. He was the athletic director for 5½ years and the adviser to the Bible clubs, which have gone by various names. Currently, the Stadium Club is a Bible study, while the Fellowship of Christian Athletes features monthly guest speakers and fellowship.

The Modesto Bee asked Ippolito about his work, his coaching and his faith.

Homelessness has impacted our city and schools. How has it affected your students?

I don’t think our community realizes how many of our kids in Modesto live with homelessness as their main challenge. Our principal at Downey, Richard Baum, made homelessness a writing theme for our students across all the curriculum on our campus last month. School is the safest place for many of our students. It is the only place where some of them get food and can use a bathroom. Most of them are too embarrassed to let anyone know about their plight. Fortunately, we have an amazingly generous staff at Downey who all give regularly to students – usually anonymously.

For me, it was heartbreaking to learn that one of my athletes – who had been coming to every practice, working harder than anyone else on the team and coming to every holiday practice – was homeless. Another year, I found out that a couple of my wrestlers were staying at different friends’ houses each week. I watched them carry the same little duffel bag to school every day. It was a P.E. bag they got from their junior high. When I passed out wrestling T-shirts and shorts to the team, the older brother asked if he could have one for his little brother. He had never asked for anything before. I started asking around and found out they had no mother. Their father was in town somewhere, but they didn’t know where he was. In the end, they found a friend whose parents took them in. They have become successful and have families of their own now.

Another set of brothers needed a ride home one day. When we drove up to their house, there was nobody there and their door was open. There was no electricity or running water in the house. They have quite a story to tell about how they overcame homelessness and are now college graduates and have their own families. They succeeded because of their guts to fight through their situation, but also because there was a safety net around them in the form of their school and people there who cared.

How has the Bible club impacted students’ lives?

Since the first Bible club in 1994, the main purpose for students has been to encourage others in their faith. Seeing each other talk about their faith at school is a big deal. It’s important that they feel safe and free to live out their faith in every area of their lives, including school. They don’t have to check their faith and values at the door of the campus. The clubs are totally run by the students, and their success depends on their efforts. As teachers, we just facilitate their access to the rooms and their activities. They run the show, so to speak. We have had some life-changing times, too. Guest speakers talk to the students. One was a professional baseball player from the Fresno area. One of our students accepted his challenge to live a new life. That student made a 180-degree turn in his behavior. His family also saw the change, and they now have a completely different family dynamic at home. He said their family conversations are more civil and they have a peaceful atmosphere now.

What are the biggest challenges that coaches face today?

The biggest challenge is to find committed athletes. Apathy is rampant in our youth today. There are so many obstacles and distractions that weren’t there even 10 years ago. Fewer students come to the campus with a “vision.” Many lack the affirmation as a man or woman. They don’t see the importance or value of working for something. The biggest challenge coaches (and teachers) face is giving them a vision and proper potential of their future. This takes daily small steps of hard work and patiently allowing them to fail, then picking them up again, being hard on them and yet affirming them as a person.

Do you have a story from your coaching days about a student that inspires you?

It’s impossible to select just one athlete who inspired me. I have had the most unlikely heroes every year I coached. For example, Craig Sanford was on my very first team I coached in 1985. He knew nothing about wrestling, but he bought into the passion of the sport. His hard work made him into my very first league champion in 1987. He should not have won, but his work and passion paid off. He held on for the last eight seconds of the match to win by one point. He later became a country singer and moved to Kentucky and wrote a song about his league championship match, but he used riding a bull as the theme instead of wrestling. He had to hang on for just eight seconds.

Or Eric in 1989. He and his brother lived by themselves during their senior year in their own apartment. Eric rarely won a match. He always told me he would go to state. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how rare it would be for someone with his experience to go to the state tournament. He placed fifth in league (the lowest qualifying spot to move on to the subsection tournament). Then he placed fourth at the subsection tournament (the lowest qualifying spot to move on to the section masters tournament). Eric became my first section champion and state tournament qualifier by pinning every opponent in the section tournament, defying all rankings and odds.

Or the several past wrestlers from the early 1990s who are now dads themselves. I saw four of them coaching their sons at a local youth wrestling tournament a couple of weekends ago. They want their sons to experience what they had. They say they hope to have them see what the wrestling family can do for them.

These are not unique stories to Downey. Doug Severe at Beyer can say the same thing. He has been a mentor to me and has made a godly impact on more athletes than anyone in Modesto. He is the one I go to for advice about many things in life.

For the past few years, you’ve helped organize a special time of prayer for teachers. Why is it important to pray for teachers, administrators, students?

There are a few of us who plan the National Day of Prayer event for Stanislaus County area educators. We agree that publicly coming together and praying for our country, our leaders, our schools and students is one of the most important things we can do. Not just on this one day, but daily. It’s encouraging to see so many of our schools’ leadership teams and staff come together to pray like this. Our committee is a small group that meets every Thursday to prepare for the National Day of Prayer. NDP is on the first Thursday of May each year. It is important to pray for teachers, administrators and students because God asks us to pray. He is in charge and he wants us to go to him for everything. We please God when we heed his advice to pray.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or (209) 578-2012.

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