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Sunday
Sep062015

The Gospel According to Gabe Infante

Reprint from Philadelphia Magazine - By Bill Stump

Gabe Infante gave up a legal career to get into coaching. Photograph by Colin Lenton

It’s an annual event called the Last Supper, and the disciples are sitting in a lazy arc at the front of the St. Joe’s Prep auditorium, arguing over who’ll go first.

Dressed in t-shirts, shorts and backward hats, the senior football players look like Philadelphia itself, black and white, affluent and not, from South Philly, the Northeast, South Jersey and the Main Line.

They’ve broken bread for a last time — pizza, pasta and chicken tenders — then collected the rewards of a second straight state title: old-fashioned wool letterman jackets with leather sleeves, and state championship rings.

But before they leave for home on this May night, with finals and graduation looming in the weeks ahead, these seniors are asked to share what they’ve learned with the returning players, the group expected to carry forward the winning tradition and unique culture created by head coach Gabe Infante in his five years at 17th and Girard.

Infante and his assistant coaches have proven they know their X’s and O’s — this season the Prep, as it’s known, can become the first program to win three consecutive large-school state titles since Central Bucks West did it from 1997 to 1999 — but Infante thinks more high-school football games are won off the field than on.

One by one, the seniors talk about their experiences playing football at the Prep and share what might seem like platitudes to cynical adults, but feel fresh when spoken with the zeal of a true believer.

“Focus on each day; don’t worry about the future,” says John Reid, a highly recruited player who’s heading to Penn State.

“There will be a bunch of times you won’t be happy and things won’t go as planned. Rely on each other,” says Jim Bell, slated for East Stroudsburg.

“There is a right way and a wrong way in life. The wrong way is easier, but the right way will make you a better man,” says Tom Johnson, soon to be a freshman at Princeton.

Other players’ voices chime in:

“If you can handle this, you can handle anything.”

And, lastly, simply: “Love each other.”

Infante, 42, sits in the back of the auditorium, letting the players take center stage — literally and figuratively. He nods in agreement as the players talk about what they’ve learned, and he laughs at the inside jokes and the unself-conscious vulgarities that are more funny than raw.

His goal when he took the job, he’ll tell you, was to turn the program over to the players, to have them lead the way. The coaches are mentors, but he wants it to be the players’ program. One way to do that is to let the kids be the ones who pass on the advice. 

Eventually, though, Infante rises to speak, pacing the aisle with the pigeon-toed gait of the star athlete he was in high school and college. He’s wearing warm-ups, and his hair is in rebellious curls, his dark, narrow-set eyes shining with … what? Intensity? Accusation?

“Thirty-three and seven,” he says, the smile now gone, the numbers dripping out slowly. There is complete silence from his players.

“This senior class went 33-7 [in its last three seasons] and won two state championships,” Infante continues. “This team has all-state players, all-Americans and Division I athletes.”

Infante turns back to the returning players. “You,” he says, “are not a team. Not yet.”

WHEN YOU FIRST meet Gabe Infante, you’re struck by his confidence, a full-steam-ahead vibe that, when combined with his size — he still has the broad chest and thick arms of a football player — makes it seem as though he might burst out of his cramped, windowless office off the foyer at the Prep.

He looks you in the eye when he talks — disarmingly so — and answers each question as though he’s seen it in advance. But Infante’s assured air isn’t the easygoing confidence that comes from growing up in a secure home with two parents and a steady paycheck, nor is it the arrogance of wealth that assumes money and connections can solve any problems that arise.

Infante, like many people who come from difficult circumstances, has created his own sense of security. He’s done it by following his calling — “I believe I was chosen to coach,” he says — and by relying on his Catholic faith and a passionate interest in the psychology of performance and success.

His unique approach hasn’t just led to back-to-back state titles; it’s made him one of the more respected high-school coaches in the country. He’s a two-time Coach of the Year in the region, and works with USA Football on its Heads Up safety initiative. He’s also coached for USA Football and in national all-star games.

“People say he has great players, and he does, but I’ve known a lot of coaches with great kids who didn’t coach ’em up the way he does,” says Jim Morgans, who won two state titles coaching at Allentown Central Catholic in the 1990s and currently coaches at Parkland High School, which has been knocked out of the state playoffs each of the last two years by the Prep. “It’s extremely difficult to be a champion in the state of Pennsylvania, let alone repeat.”

Few would have predicted such success when Infante came to the Prep from Paramus Catholic in May 2010. He took over for the popular Gil Brooks, a school alum who put together a 162-57-2 record in 18 seasons, winning five Catholic League titles. Brooks had built a winner, but he was fired in March 2010 to the surprise of almost everyone, including Brooks. Word was that maybe he pushed too hard, was a bit too salty, didn’t beat archrival La Salle often enough.

But the hiring of Infante as Brooks’s successor may have been a bigger surprise. With a .500 record his last two years in Paramus, he certainly didn’t seem to be an upgrade. If St. Joe’s Prep took a flier, then Infante took a “leap of faith,” he says. “I always wanted to coach at a Jesuit school. I wanted to be somewhere that mirrored my own values.”

He says he took a $45,000 pay cut from his job at Paramus, slept on an inflatable mattress in a small rental in Cherry Hill, and only saw his wife, Karina, and daughters Karysa and Gabriella — they were then eight and six — one night a week for dinner.

What he saw when he arrived at the Prep was a team without commitment or focus. “The culture was a major obstacle to success,” he says, referring to young men who were too distracted off the field to perform on it. “Getting kids to sacrifice the social aspect of their lives is difficult. We had to get them to give up the party on Friday night.”

When he first began to share his now-famous homilies on self-sacrifice and discipline with his new players, they rolled their eyes. When he told his players to call each other out for alcohol and drug use, they blanched. When he told them that loyalty to team superseded loyalty to friends, they didn’t understand.

Seven players transferred before his first season. The team finished 4-7.

“Looking back on that first group, I wish I had them longer,” he says. “I was very candid with our guys about the challenges, and we had very frank discussions that most adults stay away from, about drinking and drugs and lack of focus.

“I told them they needed to be honest about their commitment. I told them that if they can’t talk to each other, then we would have problems. I can’t police them 24 hours. This generation does not hold each other accountable. I tell them, ‘If you love someone and you know they’re hurting themselves or could be hurt, would you let them continue on, or would you say something?’”

Motivating young men to work hard and make good choices every day isn’t easy. So Infante encourages his players to examine their lives for what he calls their “source,” a personal wellspring that will sustain them when they’re tired or frustrated. He says he found his in his parents.

The son of Cuban immigrants, Infante grew up in a tenement in a tough Jersey neighborhood across the river from Manhattan. His parents were the “invisible” people in society, as Infante calls them, who pick up trash and clean office buildings, accepting humble roles the rest of us reject. When he was 13, he lost his father to cancer; his disabled mother raised him and his two siblings by working two jobs. As a kid, he slept in the living room with his brother Ray, who is 11 years older.

“I can remember having immature thoughts when my dad got sick, thoughts about how now if I screw up it won’t matter, people will feel sorry for me,” he says. “But the day he died, my feelings were so different. I realized I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I knew I had no room to fail and that no one would care what the excuses were if I did fail. I would either make it or not.”

A small group of people in his life inspired him to succeed. “Part of it was my father and mother, my English teacher who inspired me, my brother,” he says. “All these seeds that were planted by them when I was young, and when that moment came and I had to decide how to live, that’s how I responded. All I did was work to make it a habit.”

As a result, Infante seeks out fellow “tightrope walkers,” young men from single-parent homes or disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have a net to catch them if they fall. “I tend to gravitate to those kinds of kids,” he says. “Look at our team, you see more kids in that boat than before I got here. God has been very clever to put me in front of a lot of inner-city kids.”

What Infante offers them is a chance to meet their potential as football players and perhaps earn college scholarships, but also, more importantly, the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, an experience he believes all young men truly want.

It’s a path he followed. Infante used high-school football as a stepping-stone to education and a career, going first to the College of the Holy Cross, then earning a law degree. While his education was life-changing and the story looks great on paper, he admits he wasn’t prepared.

“I did not take advantage of all that Holy Cross offered. I had limited experience, no dad, no one to explain to me what opportunities are out there. Then I went to law school because I didn’t know what to do. I knew early on it wasn’t going to be for me, but I wanted to make my brother proud. I wanted to please others.”

He worked as an attorney for a utility company, but after a few years of moonlighting as a coach, he quit his day job to live his passion — teaching football to high-school boys as a way to help them transition into young men of purpose. “I’m a teacher first,” he says. “Football just happens to be my classroom.”

DESPITE HIS TWO TITLES, Infante hasn’t been above criticism. Last year’s team started 1-3 and got crushed by New Jersey’s Don Bosco Prep during the regular season. “Can you believe that?” Infante says, his eyebrows arching. “Losing 35-7, then winning a state championship?”

While some observers say the improvement of the team is impressive, others gripe that Infante’s squads aren’t consistent. “That hurt me, maybe because it was really true,” Infante says. “Sometimes the truth hurts, but it got me thinking about how to fix it.”

While he says he doesn’t read anything that’s written about him or his team — the comments he hears are passed on by his assistants — he knows that criticism comes with the job. He’s also self-aware enough and smart enough to realize that when you’re willing to be a leader and openly share your beliefs, others will be eager to expose you as a hypocrite.

“I think [critics] might think it’s an act or selfishly motivated … that I’m narrow-minded in my approach, arrogant, not approachable,” he says with a shrug. “I never heard anyone say those things out loud, but it comes with the territory. Who is completely understood as a person? My work product is out there for people to judge.”

But while he says he can push criticism aside, he admits staying committed and focused can be a challenge. One way he deals with the pressures is to vent daily, and he has the perfect sounding board in his brother Ray, a Microsoft engineer who’s also one of his assistant coaches.

“When I get in my car to come home, the first thing I do is call my wife to check in,” he says. “Then I call Ray. It’s usually me talking and him listening. I can say anything — ridiculous, selfish, emotional, ludicrous — and once I say it out loud, I can say, ‘That’s stupid.’ It’s so powerful to have a safe haven. It allows me to get it out of my system and refocus. I wish everyone had someone like that.”

In turn, Infante tries to be that safe haven for his players, understanding the difference it can make in the lives of young men like Shane Davis.

In 2012, Davis’s father, Shawn, was shot and killed on his way to pick Shane up from school. At the time, Shane was an overweight, underachieving teenager who seemed lost. After his father’s death, he turned to Infante, who shared his own story of losing his father at a young age.

“I would text him at 2 a.m. and he would answer,” Shane recalls. “Some days I would come in and I would go straight to his office and shut the door and we would just talk as long as I needed to talk.” Shane, who eventually became student body president and finished his career as a starting lineman, is in his freshman year at the University of San Diego.

Another tragedy hit the Prep program last April 18th when a popular freshman football player, Ryan Gillyard, collapsed during a morning practice and was later pronounced dead at Temple Hospital. Infante was at a retreat with other Jesuit-school football coaches in Maryland when he got the word. He drove back to Philadelphia immediately and, after making sure his players and young coaches who’d witnessed the incident were okay, went to see Gillyard’s parents. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he recalls. “It puts things in perspective and makes you question if you want to coach.”

But after the funeral, the tragedy only fueled his faith and commitment to his team. “Our program is built on challenging yourself constantly to grow and be as great as you can be, and adversity is what makes you grow,” he says. “I couldn’t leave.”

He believes everything happens for a reason: “The things I went through in my life were not for me, but for [my players], so I can understand them. It’s powerful when suddenly everything, even the challenges you face, has meaning.”

His young players have heard the message and done their work to prepare for the season. They aren’t a team yet. But kickoff is coming.