Jean DePlacido column: O'Leary feted by former players at gala

Former St. John’s Prep’s football coach Jim O’Leary was feted by many of his former players and their families at a gala in his honor last weekend. 

With his duties as the athletic director at St. John’s Prep and the added responsibility of a new St. John’s middle school opening in the near future, Jim O’Leary stays plenty busy.

But his former players wanted to recognize his 30 years at the helm of the Eagles’ football program and held a gala event for him last weekend at the Marriott in Peabody.

One-time Prep players, their families and colleagues came out to celebrate the man known as ‘Gentleman Jim’, who not only piled up wins during his time with the Eagles but also lasting relationships with many of them. He was feted following a Homecoming Day victory for St. John’s over Catholic Conference rival B.C. High.

An Eagles’ helmet decorated every table at the event, while the front of the room featured a collection of photos, plaques and newspaper articles — including one from The Salem News where O’Leary (who retired as coach last February) was named one of the greatest high school football coaches in North Shore history.

There were many highlights for O’Leary: two Super Bowl titles, numerous league titles and a bevy of players who went on to play in college, with others moving on to the NFL. He may have been at his best as a coach, however, when times were tough — such as Jared Coppola was seriously injured in a 2010 scrimmage and was paralyzed. O’Leary not only helped his team carry on, but was there for Coppola every step of the way during his long recovery.

O’Leary’s wife, Doris and his children, Mike and Emily, were joined by a host of players Saturday night who love and admire their coach.

St. John’s biggest rivalry each season is with Thanksgiving Day foe Xaverian. Over the years, that game almost always determines the Catholic Conference championship. Hawks’ coach Charlie Stevenson and two of his assistants came up from Westwood to scout the football game against B.C. High that afternoon, then changed into suits before heading out to pay tribute to their friend.

“I think it’s awesome they decided to have this night,” said Stevenson. “We’ve been in lots of great games for more than 20 years. Jimmy is also a great friend of mine, so I had to come. 

“Xaverian and St. John’s is the greatest league rivalry in the state. Both programs have produced great players, and watching them compete each year is outstanding for all the fans that come to see those games. We’re looking for another big crowd at our place next month.”

Three of O’Leary’s former players, Kevin Dwan, Mike Panos and current Prep head coach Brian St. Pierre, organized the event with the help of Heather Buchmann and others in the alumni office.

Dwan, a 1992 graduate who went on to have a tremendous career at Harvard, now works and lives in Singapore but said he wouldn’t have missed the big night for his former coach.

“We’re good friends and I know St. John’s is incredibly fortunate to have had him all these years,” said Dwan, who led the Eagles to the 1991 Super Bowl against Brockton. “Coach has some detractors who don’t understand football isn’t just X’s and O’s; it’s a tool for education. He has helped so many young men along the way.

“He was visiting me one time and talking to some neighbors. They asked him what his job was, and he said he was a Catholic educator. Several things are remarkable about him; dedication, resiliency, humility, loyalty and teamwork are at the top of the list. I can’t think of another football program that has anything that comes close.”

Dwan said when he was at Harvard and talked to his peers, nobody else had been in a similar situation.

“Nobody comes close to developing young men like he does,” said Dwan, who was a terrific running back for the Eagles. “He’s had, and continues to have, a tremendous impact on people. He loves all the kids he coached, whether they rode the bench or went on to be an NFLer.”

One of those former NFL stars is Kevin Lucier, a captain on the ‘97 unbeaten Super Bowl champion squad who went on to play for the New York Giants. He echoed Dwan’s sentiments.

“Coach is probably one of the most instrumental guys in my career,” said Lucier, who started for the Giants at both center and guard. “He supported my group, and ‘97 was a dream season for all of us (St. Pierre was also a captain of that unbeaten championship team). Looking back, I think Coach O ‘Leary would agree that was one of his best teams. But it’s not so much about wins or losses; it’s all the good memories we have. He certainly was a big part of that.

“I’ve played for a lot of different coaches over the years, but he was one of the best. He had a great influence on me personally. I know so many of his players feel the same way.”

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Beverly High lost another one of its all-time football greats with the passing of Sandy Kessaris at age 83 earlier this month.

Kessaris was a member of the Class of 1949 and a standout in football, baseball and basketball at Beverly High. He led the undefeated ‘48 Panthers as a running back and was named team MVP. He went on to have a great career as a halfback at Brown University.

Kessaris made his home in Wenham and volunteered his time at the Beverly Historical Society.

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Jean DePlacido is a part-time writer and columnnist for The Salem News. Contact her at jmdeplacido@aol.com.

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