The Pocket Watch: The man who taught me that Rio bites

It’s coming on a full year since the passing of one of the great figures of my adolescence and my transition into manhood. Late last June, I received word that one of the most memorable and influential figures in my life, one of my high school football coaches, Dick Dichiara, was involved in a horrible accident on his property in Placerville while operating a motorized augur. He was digging a series of holes to plant an olive orchard, and, while working on a steep grade, the machine fell back on him, severing his left leg above the knee.

His wife, Frostie, was with him at the time, so she was able to call for help, but, rural emergency services being what they are, a great deal of time elapsed before they were able to free him and life-flight him to the nearest hospital. He lost a lot of blood while responders worked, and he was in a coma for several days following the accident. As we all waited for him to regain consciousness, a flood of memories came to the fore, and I began to consider the huge impact this man had on me at such a formative time in my life.

Dick Dichiara’s influence on my life started the second I first met him, my 9th-grade P.E. teacher, and it continues to the very second that I’m typing these words into my computer. Yes, he was my position coach in football, and he taught me how to hit people and how to approach the game, and we enjoyed a lot of success together on the field (two Section Championships and two number-one state rankings). But he also taught me a lot about life.

He actually hired me for my first coaching job—nearly 30 years later, I’m still coaching—and I found that I used a lot of his principles and perspectives when coaching my players. Sometimes, when I talk to my players, I can hear Dichiara’s own words pouring out of me. Now that I think about it, the same thing has happened in the course of being a parent and confronting many of the challenges that have come with raising my own children.

My favorite quote of his was something to the effect of how the people from Rio Vista High School, our bitter rivals, believed that their (waste) tasted like ice cream, and they’d eat a pound of it as proof. We laughed and laughed when he said it, knowing it was, obviously, a joke, but, to this day, whenever I meet someone from that town, in a business or social setting, I experience an immediate shock of repulsion when they tell me where they’re from. There have been occasions when I’ve jerked my hand away midshake, depending on the timing of the revelation.

Maybe that’s not the most glowing example of his legacy in my life. In fact, if he were here today, he would vehemently deny making such a statement (then wink at me as soon as no one was looking). But there were many other things he did and said that never left me. One such thing that stands out about him is that he had no clique, he played no favorites. He loved us all equally, and he seemed to derive great enjoyment from getting to know each of us and interacting with us personally, individually. 

He had a great sense of humor. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed with any other teacher in my life as much as I did with him. And that’s funny, because I don’t think I’ve been scolded more by any other teacher than I was by him. It was as though he felt he had a vested interest in my personal development, and growth requires lots of watering, yes, but lots of pruning, too.

At one of the many post-season parties that were organized for our team following our second section championship, in one of his speeches, Dick spoke, in sort of a “now it can be told” spirit, about a player who had the peculiar habit of looking at him between plays on the field. “I’m not going to say who it was,” he pronounced, “but this player did this all season long. Immediately after every single play, he would find me on the sidelines and lock eye contact with me. Every time.” Everyone in the audience laughed, and all the players looked around at each other, laughing. I chuckled and looked around, too, but then it dawned on me that… he was talking… about… me.

I suddenly realized that I was the one who did that, and I had been almost completely unaware of the habit until he said something about it. I felt immediately self conscious, and I hoped no one would ever find out. But, you know, this was the guy who named me a starter, which, in my hometown, was on par with receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The football program had such a strong tradition that, from the time I was in grammar school, all I wanted to do was to play Delta Football.

To be named a starter was more than I’d dreamed of, right up to the afternoon practice when Steve Gardner asked Coach Dichiara, point-blank, who would be starting our first game that Friday night. Coach (gulp) actually answered him back in typical point-blank Dichiara fashion. “Dominguez and probably Hardwick or maybe Nishida on the other side. Or you, Steve,” he replied.

You could have hit me over the head from behind with a 30-pound channel cat, and I would not have been more stunned. Me for sure on one side, probably left—he was sure about that. Those other guys were fighting for the starting spot on the other side. It was the best news I’d ever received up to that point in my life. I utterly surprised, but, in front of my teammates, I had to play it off as though the news were completely expected. Sure, I’d earned it, but it was Coach Dichiara who gave it to me, and, my innate insecurities notwithstanding, I wanted to show him that he’d made the right decision. I wanted never to let him down, so I guess I looked for him after every play that season to see if what I’d just done had met with his approval, and he’d usually clap and point at me or wave his big round fist at me.

In the last game before the playoffs in my senior season, we were playing a team we’d beaten 52-0 the year before. They hated us, and they approached the game with a mindset of revenge. In between plays, I was jogging back to the huddle, one of the players from the other team blindsided me, nailing me square in the chin with the top of his helmet, under my facemask. Everything became a haze, and I stumbled over to our bench, my face leaking like a faucet.

Because our first playoff game was scheduled for the following Friday, we wanted to rest our quarterback, to minimize the risk of his injury playing against a team we could beat handily without him. Our backup quarterback played my position, so it was determined that I would have to be patched up and play the second half. So, in the locker room at halftime, our team doctor stitched up my chin, without the benefit of any kind of local anesthetic, I might add.

Imagine having your chin split open by, say, a bowling ball, then having a guy dig into the cut with a needle to sew it up, all so you can go back out and wave your face in front of the bowling ball again. Of course, Coach Dichiara was right there with me through every single stitch. He wrapped me up after it was over, and as he was doing so, he calmed me with a statement that would prove to be prophetic. “Someday,” he told me, “when you’re old and fat, you’ll get up in the morning and, while you’re shaving, you’ll nick this scar under your chin, and you’ll think about this night, getting sewn up, and going out and winning. You’ll be thankful for the scar that could take you back here.”

Earlier that season, I’d had a great game against a team that had done a lot of trash talking the week before. After the game, I had just taken a shower and was on my way to my locker. I happened to be coming around a corner when I heard our three coaches talking about me. I stopped in my tracks, not wanting to stumble into a conversation that I wasn’t supposed to hear, at least not so that they’d know. Of course, I wound up hearing it all. Dick was talking about what a great game I’d had. ME. I’d blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown, I had several sacks on the other team’s “Prep of the Week” quarterback. He was telling our Head Coach Joe Miller and Assistant Coach Jim Greene that he felt I’d had a big hand in the victory. It was as though he was scrambling for superlatives to describe the job I’d done. I stood there, soaking wet, silently shivering, completely waterlogged, but soaking this all in.

He never knew that I’d overheard his conversation, and it is impossible to convey the full weight of the effect that his words had on my game, my confidence, my life. Having Dick’s endorsement, his approval, just meant everything to me. After that night, I carried myself differently, not just more confidently, but with a kind of responsibility, an expectation of more from myself, a presumption of achievement, rather than a feeling of pleasant suprise by it. It seems silly, but hearing him talk about me, hearing overwhelming approval from the one guy I looked to for approval, was a bit of a life changer. From that night on, I handled myself much differently, in a way that sought to honor the obligation of living up to his words.

Maybe other guys on the team who were better, more well-rounded, athletes were probably already so confident that they were above the need for their coaches’ approval. But, then again, probably not. As much as we tried to comport ourselves like we were all grown up, most of us were still boys and would be for some time to come. It wasn’t until after people like Dick Dichiara were completely through with their work that we actually became men.

In the months that followed his death, two of my closest friends, Kenny Sakazaki, with whom I actually attended grammar school, and Victor Laney, one class behind me at Delta, and I petitioned the school district to name the stadium at the high school in honor of Coach Dichiara. Plans for a big renovation are currently being made, to ensure that the place befits its namesake. I’m looking forward to seeing my old friends, and my band of brothers, again.

But I won’t be seeing Dick Dichiara again anytime soon, and I imagine that this is exactly what people mean when they say, “Life is unfair.” Dick left behind three little grandchildren who have had to process the reality of death far too soon in their young lives. After taking care of everyone else’s children for so many years, Dick had just recently retired and turned his full attention to his own grandchildren. He had become a fixture at their schools, present at every little league and soccer game, every special vacation. And now, he’s gone.

Or is he? When my grandpa died, I privately asked one of my closest friends, who, I know, doesn’t believe in the afterlife, if he was sure that I’d never see Grandpa again. To my surprise, he responded, “You can see him every day, if you want.” Through tears, I shot him a confused look. “Because he might not live in Heaven,” he continued, “but he lives in here.” He poked his index finger into my chest. “He lives in your heart, in the form of a lifetime of memories,” he explained. Personally, I believe in a face-to-face someday in Heaven, but if the memories were all I had, I couldn’t complain.

I hope Coach Dichiara’s loved ones are able to convert the volumes of memories they have of him into comfort when necessary, but I also know that comfort is an illusive commodity in the face of a loss like this. As for me, I was shaving the other day, and, as I do every once in a while, I nicked the little knot of a scar, the remnant left under my chin from that night 35 years ago. It reminded me, as it had so many times in the years that had passed in the interim, of my team, our achievement, my youth, and my coach, who somehow had the ability to look far into the future and tell me what was to come with uncanny accuracy.

“The Pocket Watch” appears in every issue of the Pocket News. Jeff Dominguez can be reached at jeff.dominguez@yahoo.com

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