Thursday June 28, 2012

PITTSFIELD

There was a time when Joe Racicot wouldn't stand for such a thing. But Joe, you see, can't stand. And now the longtime high school girls' basketball and track and field coach has, by his own admission, "caved in," and will allow a committee of close friends to organize a series of fundraisers that will help purchase a $40,000 state-of-the-art Honda Element van that will be modified so that Racicot can get behind the wheel with a degree of comfort.

Racicot, a 1972 Taconic High graduate, broke his neck in a diving accident some 10 years later and has been a paraplegic since, although he does have enough motion and strength in his arms to move his wheelchair and perform the daily miracle that is getting into his smaller Saturn car. Racicot, a soccer and basketball player during his scholastic years, has coached girls' basketball at Taconic, Hoosac Valley and now Pittsfield High for almost 30 years. He remains the longtime coach of the girls' track and field team at THS.

And like the rest of us, he's older than he was yesterday but wakes up each day younger than he's going to be. Still, the repetitive motion of getting into and out of his vehicle has slowly but surely sapped the strength out of his shoulders. With his job at the Berkshire County Sheriff's Department and coaching duties all part of a typical daily schedule, Racicot is in and out of his vehicle four or five times a day on average.

It's a very challenging task and people who watch him complete it simply shake their head in amazement.


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Racicot said he literally has to attack the front door of his car. He opens it, pulls himself out of his chair by reaching up to the top of the door and lifting himself up before pivoting onto the front seat. Then he must take one wheel off the chair and manuever it into the back seat. Then he drags the entire chair into the car and has to get that into the back seat.

The entire process is repeated in reverse when he arrives at his destination.

"This whole thing started about two or three years ago," said Racicot, whose good friend and Taconic classmate Mark Quadrozzi is at the helm of the fundraising committee. "Mark just said to me, ‘Isn't it about time you stopped climbing in and out of that car?'"

Racicot was peacock proud initially, and no one was surprised. But this past winter, mild though it was, became physically challenging. The shoulders were aching badly.

And a humbled Racicot has finally given the plans his OK.

The first of three fundraising events will take place on Saturday afternoon at The Sideline Saloon on Fenn Street from 4 to 7. Many members of the former city softball Bar League are expected to fill the establishment. There will be a spaghetti dinner at Jimmy's Restaurant at a later date while the big auction/dinner event is scheduled for the Itam in early November. Information on events and contribution details can be found at either Joe_on_the_go.org or coachracicot.com.

"This fundraising effort is a little more personal," said Fran Marinaro, the longtime boys' soccer coach at St. Joe who is registrar of Probate Court. "I've helped raise money for organizations, but this is about an individual. I've known Joe for a long time and he's never asked for anything. He's a very likable guy and has a good way about him."

Added Marinaro, "I know how tough it can be to coach. You certainly don't do it for the money. But he's had great success and earned plenty of respect. And he's done it from the chair. We just want to reach out to the people who know him."

The committee has its share of heavyweights in the lineup. Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler is on board and joins people such as Marinaro, former city Mayor Gerry Doyle, Taconic Vice Principal Joe Benjamin, Jimmy's co-owner Joe Breault and close friends Mike Quadrozzi and Mike Sweener. The UNICO organization is also involved.

"I've been watching Joe transfer from the chair to his car for years," said Mark Quadrozzi, who first met Racicot at the former Crosby Junior High. "It's incredible, but dangerous. I wanted to try and do something before anything happened but Joe was reluctant at first."

Quadrozzi arranged for the new vehicle to be brought to Racicot's home, and that helped change the emotional tide. Racicot is now pretty excited about things, while Quadrozzi is a bit nervous. It's the first time he's led such a high-profile endeavor.

"Joe's just so well-known and has had such an impact on the lives of the kids he's coached," said Benjamin, who first met Racicot not long after the accident. "But he's not a young buck and this is something we need to do for him now."

Said Marinaro, "It's what Pittsfield does. It's friends stepping up to help friends."

I took Racicot down memory lane and we hit a few speedbumps: "It was 1983 no, wait. I think it was 1982. You know what, Sully? I don't even know."

It was a party, it was late and it was dark. And there was a pool, and there was only a few inches of water at the bottom of that pool. But no one knew, Racicot included. A leap into the dark and lives changed forever. A spine was traumatized and a neck broken. So, too, were the dreams of a young man.

"I do know it was July 3, so another anniversary is coming up," Racicot said. "But I let go of this about 20 years after it happened. It's funny, because I have a pool at my house now. I just float in it."

"The birth of my daughter and Joe's accident," Mark Quadrozzi said. "Some things remain frozen in your mind."

But out of the ashes hope can arise.

No one knows if Racicot would have turned to coaching had not the tragedy occured. We'll never know, but what is known is that the man has been on the coaching landscape in Berkshire County for almost three decades and has helped shape and guide the lives of hundreds of young athletes.

Racicot said he doesn't go out of his way to share his story with members of his high school teams. But if you ask him, well, he doesn't mind sharing.

"I've got a couple of grandchildren not quite yet 5," he said, "I expect that soon they're going to want to know why ‘Papa' is always in a chair."

"He's been a productive member of our society for 25 or 30 years," Quadrozzi said. "Now he needs some help. And we want to do this so that he stays productive."

Added Marinaro, "This is so easy to do. It's a way of giving back to Joe much of what he's given us over the years."

So, yeah. Racicot and his companion, Lynn Richards, are good with this fundraiser. He said emotions will probably get the better of him before it's all over. He said it will be nice that these three events will bring all his friends together in one place.

And, you can expect him to keep his dry sense of humor.

"During basketball practice I might bark at one of the girls and say, ‘Hey, I can jump higher than that.' It takes a second, but then they turn and look at me with their eyes wide open."

Joe, you have jumped high and left us wide-eyed for a long time. In life, you have soared above us all.

Brian Sullivan can be reached at mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.