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Chiarelli: Sam Koch’s impact evident in those who knew him best

I could tell you about my experience in reacting to Sam Koch’s sense of humor.

I could tell you about the handful of times I interviewed him as a nervous assistant sports editor, about my sudden realization that not all coaches answered in rehearsed clichés and that it was perfectly acceptable to erupt in laughter in the middle of a simple interview session.

I could tell you about his infectious personality, his calm yet powerful demeanor on the sideline or the one time he told a group of assembled reporters that his brother once stole his saxophone.

Or I could let those who played for Koch – who died Sunday after a two-year battle with cancer – during his 23 years as steward of the Massachusetts men’s soccer program tell you about it.

Take Dominic Skrajewski’s word for it. He’ll know plenty more about the passionate, abundantly positive coach with a quick-wit than I would. Skrajewski started 67 games as a defender for the Minutemen and captained UMass from the backline during his senior season before graduating in 2012.

“If he wanted to, he could probably get a time slot on Comedy Central,” Skrajewski said when reached by phone on Monday afternoon.

“He always had a one-liner, he always had that line to get someone to laugh. He’d get that serious talk to the team, talk to you, he’d tell you how it is and then he’d end it with a joke. He’d get you right back to where you need to be with a positive attitude.”

Take Brett Canepa’s word for it too. Canepa was a junior co-captain during Skrajewski’s senior season and an outright captain during his senior campaign in 2013 despite missing the entire season with a torn ACL.

“His jokes, he probably thought they were funny,” Canepa said in between laughs of his own.

“It was definitely some old school jokes that he would laugh at himself about and that’s what we love about him. The guys would laugh at him, not with him, and Coach would laugh for himself so it was pretty funny.”

Matt Keys, who will captain UMass this season, added his own anecdote.

One of his fondest and funniest memories of his coach was Koch’s recollection of the time he was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game. He was fresh off a College Cup appearance after guiding his 2007 squad to an improbable Cinderella run in NCAA tournament. The story came up when Koch was asked to throw out the first pitch at the UMass softball team’s Cancer Appreciation Day in a tribute to Elaine Sortino, another legendary UMass coach who passed away after a battle with cancer.

“I asked him, ‘Are you nervous?’” Keys said of his coach who he referred to as a “father figure.”

“And he was just like, ‘No way.’ And you know the expressions and the way he uses words? The way he described the fear of throwing out the first pitch at the Red Sox game was so funny.”

Fortunately for those who were privileged enough to at least share Koch’s company, it’s easy to think of those mannerisms. And it’s easy for each of those three players – and countless more – to think of a time when Koch so profoundly impacted them as both young men and athletes.

Koch was a loving family man. He spent many weekends traveling hours at a time to see his children play soccer, only to scurry back to Amherst so he wouldn’t miss a practice. That family appeal extended to every player who donned Maroon and White as part of a family that extends much further from the pitch.

He was overwhelmingly positive.

He expected a lot from his players, and in return, offered them guidance. Any time a player needed to talk, his office door remained open.

He was a fighter.

He fought to keep UMass, a program nearly cut due to funding and Title IX issues, afloat. It was a chip on his shoulder that never left.

“He’d tell us stories about when he came to UMass and they were about to shut down the team,” Skrajewski said.

“And he had this attitude that ‘they’re not going to shut down this team. We’re going to do so well that they’re not going to even want to shut down this team.”

By 2007, the Minutemen were besting national powerhouses.

So it’s no surprise that Koch confronted his diagnosis with sinus cancer in a similar manner. He wasn’t going to make it an issue and the program would stay status quo under his watch.

“Two years ago when he was about to go on this battle of cancer, it was actually my senior year and I was lucky enough to be the captain at that time,” Skrajewski said.

“He brought me into his office and he wanted to let me know he was about to tell the team. He got emotional, he told me what he was about to tell the team and about his journey that he was about to take on. But I saw the sense in him, he looked me straight in the eye and said ‘I’m going on a battle, I’m not giving up.”

That’s the Sam Koch many who associate with UMass soccer will remember. They’ll each tell you, one by one, about what a substantial impact he’s made on so many lives. His attitude will carry on with the Minutemen for decades, and will be what is always remembered.

“He was probably very scared inside,” Skrajewski said. “But he was just so positive about everything that he took this head on and I know that he gave it everything he had.

“He’s one of the strongest people I know and he was definitely a role model and he was a father figure to me at UMass. You see him day in and day out, I couldn’t be more proud of him and I know he’s looking down on us.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

Comments
One Response to “Chiarelli: Sam Koch’s impact evident in those who knew him best”
  1. Polly Curran says:

    Dear Mark Chiarelli,
    I’m Sam’s aunt and he was like a son to me. You write very well and you painted a wonderfully accurate picture of him. He was indeed funny, positive and affectionate. His Uncle Jim and I were with him on July 18 and he died on the 20th, the same date on which his mother died of cancer in 1993. His funeral will be Aug. 3, by chance her own birthdate in 1926. Jim and I will always miss him. Thank you for your tribute to him; it is excellent.
    Polly Curran

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