(Editor’s note: This feature, published in the Nov. 29, 2013, edition of the Citizen’s News, examines the impact of the late George Pinho, a former football coach at Woodland High. This feature won first place at the 2013 Connecticut SPJ Awards among sports features in the community non-daily category.)
BEACON FALLS, Conn. — Jack Pinho sat at the front of a third-floor classroom at Woodland Regional High School, his and his teammates’ eyes fixed on a projection screen. It was the first Thursday afternoon in October, only 28 hours before kickoff of the Hawks’ rivalry game against Naugatuck.
Senior captains, such as Pinho, sit at the head of the class during film sessions and game plan presentations. Pinho is listed at 5-foot-8, 120 pounds — Woodland’s roster would not fare well against a lie detector — so none of the underclassmen behind him fret about the wide receiver obstructing their views.
That’s a good thing, because all 41 varsity players in the room needed to see how sixth-year head coach Tim Shea was going to conclude the week’s film study.
Week 4 was packed with pressure even before the previous one had ended. Both Woodland and Naugatuck entered October with 3-0 records and the winner of their game would likely emerge as the eventual champion of the Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division. Most local pundits picked the Greyhounds to win a close one.
Plus, in an era when historical rivalries of the prideful Valley have softened, the emotions between the Hawks and ‘Hounds are more volatile than ever. Officials expected a crowd of at least 2,000 to descend on Beacon Falls for the first time in nearly a decade.
Woodland’s players had plenty to focus on leading up to the game, but Shea made sure to keep one complacency-breaker until the end of the week.
The Hawks already knew they were going to play for the first George Pinho Trophy, the decade-old rivalry’s new centerpiece named for Jack’s late father and former Woodland assistant coach who unexpectedly died in January. But they didn’t get to see it until Shea surprised them with the last click in his pre-walkthrough PowerPoint.
“Coach Shea showed a picture of the trophy in the film room, and everyone started getting hyped for it,” Jack remembers. “The intensity level just perked up. There was a lot of fire and emotion in that Thursday practice.”
So much, in fact, that the Hawks assured themselves of what was going to happen the next night.
“That game meant so much to us,” senior quarterback Tanner Kingsley recalls. “We knew we were going to win.”
George Pinho was born Dec. 12, 1964, in Waterbury and grew up in Naugatuck. He graduated from Naugatuck High School and eventually moved to Prospect, where he and his wife, Jane, raised their two boys, Jake and Jack.
Being involved in his sons’ lives was of paramount importance for George. Jack thinks his father’s motivation had deep roots.
“When he was younger, his dad wasn’t really there for him,” Jack explains. “From youth soccer until now, he wanted to be involved with everything. He was always there for Jake and me. He was one of those dads you always wanted.”
Almost every youth sports organization in the area boasted George on its volunteer roster at some point. He coached soccer, basketball, baseball and football in Prospect, Naugatuck and Beacon Falls over the years. It didn’t matter how much — or how little — George knew about the techniques and strategies of each sport rather than how badly he wanted to be there.
“He never made it about himself,” Jake says. “If he had a job to do, he was going to give it his all. It didn’t matter who it was for, he just wanted it to be the best experience possible for everyone. He was never even a big football guy when it came to X’s and O’s, but he was a motivator and everyone loved to have him around.”
George joined Shea’s staff at Woodland around the time Jake made the varsity squad in 2008. Pinho served all sorts of roles, from head freshman coach to assistant varsity special teams coordinator. It was important to Shea to have a positive role model who had connected with many of the players for years.
“He didn’t let a lot of things bother him, and if he did he didn’t show it,” Shea says. “He was always like, ‘OK, move on. Next up. Don’t worry about it.’ Kids gravitated to that. In small towns like these, he essentially had every kid on his team or in his house at some point.”
George’s love for his sons ran the gamut from tough to tender. Jake, now studying at Central Connecticut State University, also knew his dad as his best friend.
“He was truly a hero and an idol in my life,” Jake boasts. “He was the only person I was able to talk about anything with. If you want to talk about someone being your biggest fan, it was him. Jack and I always knew that no matter what we did, success or failure, that we always had him.”
But George didn’t limit himself to two sons. The hundreds of young men he coached throughout the years — especially the ones who played alongside Jake and Jack at Woodland — felt the same affection from the man they called “GP.”
“No other coach showed the same love Coach Pinho showed for all of us,” Kingsley says. “He cared so much for our team. He would always say in his pregame speeches how he loved us so much and that we’d always have him forever. And we always will.”
“They were his sons, too,” Jack smiles. “He loved them all.”
Shea, who also coaches the boys track teams, stood inside Hillhouse High’s indoor facility Jan. 19 after supervising a football weightlifting session that morning at Woodland. On what should have been a fairly quiet Saturday, he felt his phone buzz. It was a call from assistant coach Jack DeBiase.
“Where’s Jack?” DeBiase asked, demanding to know where Pinho was.
“What do you mean, ‘Where’s Jack?’” Shea responded. “I’m at a track meet. He was at lifting this morning and then he had basketball practice. Why?”
“George had a heart attack,” DeBiase said.
Shea thought it was a joke.
“No, no,” DeBiase shot back. “He had a heart attack. Jake found him and they’re on their way to the hospital.”
Shea told DeBiase to call the basketball coaches so they could alert Jack and rush him to the hospital. Once Shea finished with DeBiase, he updated his assistant coaches on the situation. While he explained what was unfolding to a group of senior parents at the track meet, Shea felt another buzz. This time it was a text from DeBiase.
In the week that followed George’s death, Shea coordinated the football team’s effort to help memorialize the 48-year-old dad and mentor. He organized the Hawks’ joint entrance to the funeral at St. Anthony’s Church in Prospect.
“It was a very tough time for a lot of these kids because they all knew George, not only as a coach but as friends,” Shea says. “We thought a fitting tribute to him would be for us to go in together. I had a pretty good cry that day.”
Jack and Jake saw the team’s tribute as the epitome of the Hawks’ motto: “Fear the Family.”
“Some people call their team a second family, but I call this my family,” Jack says. “They’ve been more than a second family to me.”
“The way that they embraced us is something that you can’t ever be thankful enough for,” Jake agrees. “To have them be there with us, and to see how it affected them so much and show their feelings toward my dad, it just brought everyone closer. When you talk about family, I think everything that’s happened really defines that word.”
Of all the moments — the outpouring love at the funeral, the memories shared by friends, the inspirational victories to come — nothing resonated with the Pinhos as much as George’s wake, which attracted what seemed like an endless stream of thousands.
“The night of the ceremony was crazy, the amount of people and hours of waiting they did,” Jack says.
“That night was probably the most proud I’ve ever been to be able to call him my dad,” Jake gushes. “Nobody else can say that besides me and Jack. To see all those people there was just incredible. It felt like we hugged and shook hands for five hours, and if I could relive it again I would. It was amazing to see all that love.”
To Shea, it was exactly what George deserved.
“The amount of respect shown at his wake spoke volumes,” Shea says. “That’s a true testament of a man.”
When the ceremonies ended and the we’re-there-for-you assurances trickled to a stop, the Pinhos were left to begin life without their patriarch. The realization struck Jack in the most mundane of ways.
“Everyone was like, ‘We’re here for you,’” Jack recalls. “But when you get home and Jake’s at college, my mom’s working, and you walk in the door, it hits you because you’re all alone.”
Shea knows the emotions Jack and Jake felt. The Naugatuck native channeled his experience from 1996, when he had to deal with the untimely passing of his father, Michael, after a battle with esophageal cancer.
He recognized the parallel between his situation, which left him stepping up in his early 20s to care for his mother and two younger sisters, and that of the Pinho brothers.
“As the oldest, I forced myself to the head of the table,” Shea says. “I’ve talked to the two of them about it — Jake especially, being the oldest. I’ve told Jake that there are certain things he’ll need to do. I still talk to Jake about stuff, and I’ll sit Jack down and talk about dad stuff. There are certain things they can tell me that I understand but other people wouldn’t.”
For Jake, Shea has helped fill the role of a father figure.
“He’s been someone who I can talk to about anything. After my own football practices, I always had my dad to call,” says Jake, who is a walk-on player at CCSU. “When I lost him, I almost lost myself. But Coach Shea has been able to provide that for me. If I’m feeling bad about a practice or a game, I can always go talk to him.”
Jack and Jake have their mom, Jane, too.
“My mom is one of the toughest individuals,” Jack says. “How she’s handled it, with people coming up to her all the time about it, is amazing. She’s never missed a game for me and Jake, and I don’t know how she’s done it with her schedule. She loves us so much.”
George’s sons have never been the star players of their teams. They’re not the all-state type. They have always been among the most undersized guys on the field. But Jake and Jack worked for their spots in the Woodland football program, and that’s what made George proud.
Jake’s senior season was in 2010. As one of the team’s three captains, he led the Hawks to their first state postseason appearance in three years. At just 5-foot-6, 157 pounds, he earned All-Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division honors as a defensive back.
Nobody recruited him to play college football, but he earned a spot with the Blue Devils as a walk-on. Jake played in his first game Oct. 26 against Salve Regina and registered his first career tackle on special teams. Playing on kickoffs gives Jake a special chance to acknowledge his dad.
“Before every kickoff, when I go out on the field, I always point to the sky because I know he’s watching,” says Jake, a sophomore. “He was so proud of what Jack and I have been able to do, and I use it as motivation to make him more proud because I know he’s still watching. I always write his name down on my ticket list so I can guarantee that he’ll be there.”
When time permits, Jake comes back to coach the Hawks. It’s a way to stay close to the program he loves and to duplicate the love it received from his father.
“He lived his life for me and Jack, and now we’re the ones who get to carry on his legacy,” Jake says. “Hopefully one day we will be able to pass it on like he passed it to us and to so many other people.”
Jack’s senior season is this fall. Like his older brother, he’s also one of Woodland’s three captains, and he’s helped the Hawks reach the playoffs for the third time in four years. The 120-pounder might be the smallest starter in the conference, but it hasn’t stopped him from snagging five touchdown passes.
“I know he wanted nothing more for me than to follow in Jake’s footsteps because Jake was a leader,” Jack says. “I know he’s happy for me.”
Jack lines up as Woodland’s third wide receiver — wearing the same No. 3 as his brother — and usually functions as Kingsley’s security blanket in crucial situations. Jack’s catch at the end of the 2012 Class S quarterfinal against Capital Prep sealed a semifinal berth for the Hawks. George was there for that game, and Jack says he still gets the same vibe.
“I feel like he’s still there on the sidelines,” Jack says. “I can still picture his voice yelling and trying to find something wrong about what I’m doing. There are certain signs during the game that make it feel like he’s watching.”
The signals have never been stronger than they were Oct. 4, 2013.
Jake came back to coach Woodland’s game against Naugatuck — the one with his dad’s trophy on the line for the first time — and Shea allowed him to make a pregame speech.
“I tried to relay the message of what he always said before the game, about how much he loved them,” Jake says. “Throughout my whole football career, whether it’s playing or coaching, that was the most emotional game.”
With more than 2,000 fans on hand, the Hawks took their home field with “GP” stickers on their helmets and his initials Sharpied on their wrist tape. George’s brother, Tony, paraded the trophy atop the hill throughout the game for all to see.
Woodland took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Kingsley to Mike Kenney. Naugatuck snatched the lead in the second, but just a minute before halftime the Hawks re-seized it when Jack hauled in an 11-yard score from Kingsley.
Naugy briefly took another lead in the third but soon Kingsley took back the edge for good with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Tucciarone. Kingsley added an insurance score on a 2-yard run in the fourth, and Chris McDonald recovered an onside kick to end the game.
Woodland 25, Naugatuck 22.
Jack stood on the field as Kingsley executed the victory formation. As the quarterback raised his knee for the final time, Jack took one of his own in the center of the gridiron. He pointed with both arms toward the sky and then took a few steps toward Jake, trotting onto the field to meet his younger brother while the final siren blared beneath the crowd’s roar.
“I was able to run out onto the field and greet Jack first and give him a hug,” Jake remembers. “It was one of those moments, in the midst of the tragedy — when you dedicate your life to this game, it makes you realize it was all worth it.”
“I looked at Jake at the end of the game, and it was just one of those moments,” Jack recalls.
Jake relinquished the 10-second embrace to let Jack thank the black-clad student section and shake hands with the Greyhounds. Soon after, Jane took the game ball and Uncle Tony presented to Jack the silver football attached to a black base with the inscription: “The George Pinho Trophy.”
Jack clung to the trophy much as he did to the ball on his touchdown catch. He posed for a few photos before he leapt atop his team’s bench to show off the prize to those remaining in the bleachers.
“It was probably one of my favorite moments watching Jack hold up that trophy with his dad’s name on it,” Kingsley recounts. “That was unbelievable.”
“We made a promise that it wasn’t going anywhere,” Shea says. “I believe that George was looking down on us.”
It was the fourth time in Jack’s high school career that the Hawks had beaten the ‘Hounds. He had a routine after each of the first three victories. The final one spoke for itself.
“Usually when we’d beat Naugy, I’d rub it in my dad’s face because he went to Naugy,” Jack says. “People might think that I was sad, but I know he was happy about this one.”
(Editor’s note: Here’s how the feature looked in print.)