Saturday, October 18, 1986, was the day my life was changed forever. Besides getting married and witnessing my kids being born, that cool autumn day thirty-six years ago was the greatest day of my life. All because of one man’s belief in me.
Suffern High School Varsity Football team was playing archrival, Clarkstown North. The game was away in New City, New York. Both teams undefeated. Both teams trying to advance to the Rockland County and state championships. Both teams desperate for a win.
Clarkstown North leads Suffern High by two points. It is 4th quarter. 4th and 10. Suffern has the ball on Clarkstown North’s 20-yard line. And there are 29 seconds left on the clock. Suffern’s Head Coach Bob Veltidi has one last play of the game.
The choice is simple. Put senior star Suffern quarterback Danny Munoz in for a 20-yard post route pass to the corner of the end zone – in the hands of his younger brother Kenny – like they had done a hundred times before. Danny’s arm was nearly perfect. And Kenny could catch just about anything thrown his way.
But Coach Veltidi did not call that play. Instead, Coach called in the kicking crew. And my life would never be the same again.
“A 36-yard field goal…a pretty good shot for a high school kid,” the announcer says on the loudspeaker, as I approach the field.
Soon I find myself, alone, standing on the field staring at the goalpost. I’ve never kicked a field goal that far before. Heck, I’ve never kicked a field goal in a game before – let alone the game winner! Danny always found a way to make it to the endzone.
And then Clarkstown North’s head coach calls time out to ice me, the kicker. Great…I now have 60 more seconds to think about how I’m going to kick the ball wide right and lose the game! Ruin our undefeated season. Lose our chance to head to the Rockland County and state championship. End our season in defeat. Coach should have put Munoz in, I remember thinking.
But my coach had a different plan for that day.
Out comes Coach Bob Veltidi walking straight towards me and meets me on the twenty-six-yard line. I will never forget those 60 seconds. Coach Veltidi whispered words to me that no coach, no teacher, no person other than my parents had ever said to me before. “I believe in you, Tommy. And whether you make this field goal or not, I’m going to love you.” And then the man whom I called Coach walked calmly back to the sidelines.
“Tommy Spaulding. 29 second ticks on the clock. The heat is on. The ball is snapped. The ball is down. The kick is up. The kick is GOOD! The kick is GOOD! He just snuck it over the cross bar,” the announcer screams.
Suffern wins 22-21.
That was 12,862 days ago. And I have thought about that football game nearly every one of those days. But interestingly, after all those years I don’t relish in the win. What I relish in is that 99% of high school football coaches in the country would have put seasoned and star quarterback, Danny Munoz in for the game winning play. What coach in their right mind would trust a novice player who not only never kicked a game winning field goal, but never kicked a dang field goal all season? Who? My coach. Coach Bob Veltidi. This man put an undefeated season on my shoulders and whispered words to me that nobody had ever said before, “I believe in you”. In 60 seconds, my coach changed my life. Not because we won the game, but because someone took a chance on me. Someone saw something great in me. And someone saw something in me that I did not see in myself.
That is what great coaches do. That is what heart-led leaders do. And that is what Coach Bob Veltidi did at Suffern High School for thirty-three years.
Last week, my friend, Coach Bob Veltidi passed away on December 27th, 2021. He was only 74 years old. Yes, he was inducted into the Nanuet, Suffern, and Rockland County Sports Hall of Fames. But more importantly, in those seventy-four short years he changed a lot of lives, including mine.
Who on your team, family, or friend group can you whisper the words, “I believe in you”? Who in your life can you change their next 12,862 days because you see something in them that they don’t see in themselves? And who, metaphorically speaking, can you put in the game with 29 seconds left to kick the game winning field goal?
Influence is the greatest gift a leader can give to others. Most coaches focus only on the W…winning. But great leaders focus on living a life that changes the lives of others. Their W is not only “winning” but “whispering” those four magical words that Coach Bob Veltidi so often did to countless others, “I believe in you”.
Thank you, Bob Veltidi, for changing my life. But more importantly, for teaching me the power of changing the lives of others. Rest in peace my dear friend, teacher, and coach.
Coach Bob Veltidi
September 7, 1947 – December 27, 2021