John Jay Community Refuses to Abandon Coach Bill Swertfager
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On Thursday, November 3, the Board of Education met for its weekly meeting, and the room bursting with parents, alumni and current students, the gathering was no ordinary affair. The board recently alerted Coach Bill Swertfager that he would not be among the coaches slated for return. The issue at hand stemmed from an incident that took place 18 months ago at a John Jay Girls Softball game. In response, the public comment echoed a profound disagreement with the decision.
The crowd began entering early, and by the time the board sat, the capacity was eager to start. Of course, the necessary preliminaries preempted, and when a presentation on Mental Health concerns came up next, the impatience was evident. “Let’s skip all this BS,” one frustrated parent yelled out, and cheers followed.
The interruptions continued, and the board voted for a recess. Not enough for a majority, Swertfager’s wife stood up and implored patience so the board could proceed as they normally would.
The audience settling, the presentation continued, and a few minutes in, the zoom feed was deemed not to be working. A recess ensued, and once restarting about 15 minutes later, the board went directly to public comment.
The coach took to the podium, and after thanking the board for agreeing to hear him, Swertfager provided his version. “I understand I’m being dismissed from the position of wrestling coach at John Jay, because of an incident in another sport, where I supposedly touched a player coaching first base during the course of a game. It was in plain sight, and in a manner that is very common and generally accepted in sports everywhere. There were over 100 coaches, parents and umpires at the game,” the coach asserted. “Whatever I have done was completely unintentional, and I was acknowledging a job well done. I would never ever touch a child inappropriately or anyone else for that matter. It’s just 180 degrees the full opposite of who I am.”
Swertfager went on to say that his unblemished body of work over 40 years should be proof enough and deserving of a second chance. In closing, Swerfager asked the board to table the decision, and agreement again rang out. “We got you,” a supporter interrupted, and the community then filled in the blanks of the coach’s career.
Horace Greeley grad Rick Bueti hit the first note after driving a hundred miles. A tech industry professional, the Old Lyme Connecticut resident has run with Fortune 100 CEOs at IBM, Hewlett Packard and CDW and has been inspired by business people who operate multibillion dollar enterprises. But those captains of industry were all bested long ago in high school, according to Bueti. “Not one of them has displayed the charisma, character building skills and the innovative leadership abilities that Billy Swertfager showed me and my teammates in high school,” he boasted.
Thus the old teammate urged the board to reconsider and not deprive 100s of students of the greatest role model the community has ever known. “He’s no ordinary coach,” added Bueti.
Jennifer Cipriano confirmed the notion through their family’s experience. Her son Peter has a neuromuscular disorder, and coming to John Jay at the age of 16, the sophomore had difficulty fitting in. That is until he joined the wrestling team. But there was more to the experience than camaraderie and just going through the motions. “Bill took him under his wing. He told him, 'we’re going to figure out a way to make you successful and keep you wrestling,’” Cipriano was all heartfelt.
Peter went onto take third in the divisionals, and the luster probably coming off the medal by now, the impact is just as bright. “He pushes himself everyday, because Bill believed in him,” said Cipriano.
The commentary far from done, the influence literally saved a life, according to the 2013 team captain. Billy Gossett immersed himself in the leadership, integrity and work ethic that Swertfager taught, and April 17 2017 provided the proof.
A young woman was being abducted with deadly intent, and the wrestler put the lesson plan in use by rescuing her. “If it had not been for Bill, I would have simply been a bystander that night,” Gossett recalled.
Of course, Swertfager never stood by either. "If there was anything you didn’t understand or a technique you had difficulty getting down, he would take extra time out of his day to help you get to the place you needed to be. He was always the first one to tell you to never give up, and the first to celebrate with you,” said Nikki Hammond who was coached by Swertfager in softball and also was the team wrestling manager at John Jay.
At the same time, Hammond remembers him as one of the most caring and compassionate coaches. One who taught how far she could go on self confidence. “Bill made me realize that I can make it through anything if I put my mind to it,” she said.
A complete injustice, Hammond saw these proceedings, and those are not just words. “Not once did I ever feel uncomfortable as a female, an athlete or a student,” Hammond asserted.
The stories went on for three hours, and in the end, the decision was tabled. So the community will have to wait. But modified wrestling coach Adam Kern didn’t mince words to a school board that subjected his friend to this precipice. “Shame on you,” Kern concluded.
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