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Prep coach still honors those who raised him

Reprint from Philly.com - By (Philadelphia Daily News)

St Joseph's Prep head football coach Gabe Infante has a strong work ethic that was instilled in him by his parents, who immigrated from Cuba. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)

THE BUSES were empty, the cars long gone from the side lot at St. Joseph's Prep - except one, where a family patiently waited inside, fatigued from a joyous hourlong ride back from Hershey. In the trunk of the car was the first state football championship trophy in Prep's history.

A few yards off was a lone figure in the Prep courtyard at 1 in the morning, leaning down to pick up the last remnant of trash.

Gabe Infante had an obligation to fulfill. The St. Joe's Prep football coach wasn't about to leave that frigid late-December morning without making sure that the quad was spotless, and that no debris was left for the maintenance workers.

A state-champion football coach picking up trash in a parking lot? who does that? 

Infante does.

Infante and the Hawks will continue the defense of their Class AAAA state title against Parkland at 1 p.m. today in the state quarterfinals at BASD Stadium in Bethlehem. The Prep is 8-3 and the No.-1 ranked team in the Daily News Top 10 poll.

Gabe Infante stands watchfully in the background as his players go through a drill at practice. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Infante was paying homage to a father whose lap he used to sit on while eating breakfast each morning before he embarked on his long day; to a mother who worked three jobs and fought to give him life; and to a brother whose steadfast devotion led him here, winning state titles.

It was Infante's lasting tribute to "the invisible people," the ones who clean the hotel rooms and sweep the floors, essentially to those who raised him and made the highly successful Hawks coach who he is.

Walk into Infante's cramped Prep office in the school's main lobby and behind his desk you'll see his degree from Holy Cross, where he was a starting safety, and the law degree from New York Law School. Your perception is that he might have come from money, might possibly have been handed a thing or two in life.

"They see all this [pointing to his wall of degrees] and they think it's me, but what they don't see is that I'm here by the grace of God because of three incredible human beings," Infante said. "I don't talk to my players from a pedestal that I'm perfect. I don't tell them I was smarter than they were at their age. No, I was dumber than them at their age. For some reason, God saved me, and my goal is to provide for them the same opportunities I had."

Chances are that wouldn't have occurred if not for an escape from Cuba.

Ramon and Barbara Infante, Gabe's parents, had to get out. Fidel Castro had taken over their beloved Cuba and the Infantes had deep roots in deposed President Fulgencio Batista's army. Ramon was in the Cuban special forces under Batista, Gabe's uncle was a pilot in the Cuban air force and his grandfather was a longtime high-ranking army official. They had to escape. Ramon didn't think his family was safe.

So he took his wife and two young children, Ray and Barbara, Gabe's older siblings, who were babies at the time, and the family settled in Weehawken, N.J., before moving to West New York, N.J.

Ramon got a job as a factory foreman and Barbara as a seamstress. To make extra money, the Infantes cleaned office buildings at night. Gabe eventually came along - 11 years later. But because Barbara was older, she was advised that she shouldn't carry the pregnancy to term. She fought to have him, defying medical advice and risking her life, too.

The Infantes lived in a government-subsidized tenement that had one of those misnomers of a name, the Overlook Terrace. About the only thing it overlooked was a tough neighborhood, but the terrace provided an unobstructed view of the New York City skyline. It was the one luxury about Apartment 21L, where the Infantes lived.

Somehow, the family managed. They squeezed seven into a three-bedroom apartment. Gabe and Ray slept on mattresses on the living-room floor.

The roaches were so numerous, they made the floors come alive at night. To clear a path to the kitchen, Gabe would tiptoe to the bathroom, fill a bucket of water and splash it on the floor to create a pathway.

"I did that a couple of nights in a row and my grandmother actually replaced the refrigerator once, thinking it was defrosting, when it was me every night dumping water on the floor so I could get something to eat each night," Infante recalled. "We were poor, but you don't know what you don't have.

"I always tell the story that I didn't fully realize we were poor until I brought my college roommate from Holy Cross back home. We pulled up to the apartment and he says to me, 'You live here?' It's a true story. That's the first time I realized I was poor. He was scared to stay there for 3 days. You know something, though, we were happy. Sure, we struggled, but there was a lot of love in that place."

Things changed quickly. Ramon lost his job 6 months before he was vested in his pension. Gabe was in sixth grade when his parents told him his father was sick and needed surgery.

"I didn't think much of it. To that day, my life was perfect as a kid," Infante said. "There was nothing earth-shattering. Looking back on my childhood, that's the moment when everything just changed. From that moment on it was adversity after adversity after adversity."

Ramon was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors gave him 6 months to live. Ramon lasted 3 years. He died on Sept. 12, 1987. Gabe remembers seeing his father's silhouette at the kitchen table early each morning, eating breakfast.

"I would come in and he would put me on his lap and finish his cereal. Then he would put me back to bed and go to work, and I wouldn't see him until the next day," Infante said.

He remembers something else, too. The day his father died, he was at practice that morning. Ray was coaching him as a freshman at Memorial High. Gabe remembers his sister-in-law coming into the complex.

"The second she walked in, I knew something was up," Infante said. "I saw my brother's expression, and it was bad. Dad was hospitalized at the time and Ray pulled me aside and said, 'They say today is the day. We have to go. What do you want to do?'

"I told him I want to finish practice. For the 3 years that God gave me my father, my father thought it was borrowed time for him to prepare his baby boy. My father drilled it into me, 'Life will go on. You don't stop living because I won't be here.' When that moment came, everything he prepared me for just took hold. I told my brother that I wanted to finish practice. It's what Dad would have wanted me to do."

Ray and Gabe got to the hospital just in time. Ramon was barely conscious. He could hardly lift his arm to summon over Gabe, still in his football gear.

"My father slaps me across the face as hard as he could, and then he grabs me and he kisses me," Infante recalled. "He says to me that 'The first one is for every time in your life that I would have wanted to slap you and won't be able to; and the second one is for every time in your life I would have wanted to kiss you and won't be able to.

" 'There's going to be a lot of times in your life where you wish you could have called me and asked for my advice. I want you to remember when you have two choices, always take the hard road, never take the easy road. Nothing in life worth having comes easy. Just remember that.' Those were the last words my father said to me.

"You wonder why I'm resilient? Do you really think I care if I lose a game, 42-0, after everything I've been through? Life isn't going to slow me down. I've taken some pretty good shots, and it's not like I haven't been knocked down."

Ray became the family patriarch. He took on Gabe. He raised him. It's why Gabe considers Ray his hero, and it's why Ray protectively watches his 41-year-old brother as if he were still 14.

Ray made sure Barbara, who died of cancer a year after Gabe graduated Holy Cross, never missed a game. She was Gabe's inspiration; he watched her make deliveries off the books in a beat-up red Chevrolet Impala until all hours of the night after businesses were closed. To this day, Gabe has a hard time with it. It's why he purposely walks the edges each time the floors are being mopped in Prep's lobby.

"I talk to our players all the time about finding their source," Infante said. "Why do you play? Why do you do what you do? My mom was my source. She was poor, disabled and had a hard life. The only joy she had was watching her baby boy play. It's why I'm adamant with our kids about leaving a place the way they found it, because the people that have to clean up after them are the same ones that raised me."

Gabe Infante urges his players to find their source of inspiration that makes them want to strive to do their best. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)It's why he was picking up trash at 1 in the morning after winning the state championship, why the Prep has played a national schedule this year - paying tribute to those that put him there.