SUBMITTED PHOTO/MARILYN KOZAK
EASTHAMPTON — Whether it was his classic one-liners and platitudes, or the way he instilled confidence and discipline in his football players, the late Eugene DeFilippo made a lasting impression on generations of youth in the Valley.
DeFilippo, of Easthampton, was killed in a two-car collision on Monday, Sept. 5, in South Deerfield. He was 97 years old.
News of the passing of the former football coach (1955-1968), history teacher and vice principal at Northampton High School, has been particularly emotional for many alumni, as a number had remained in contact with DeFilippo.
“It’s sad and I’m almost going to tears talking about it,” said Andy Trushaw, who graduated from the high school in 1972. “He didn’t deserve to go the way he did. It’s tragic.”
As a self-described “wild youth,” Trushaw said his behavior often landed him in Vice Principal DeFilippo’s office. While he didn’t care much for him at the time, Trushaw says his relationship with DeFilippo grew to a point where he felt comfortable calling him a friend.
He credits both his father and former vice principal as his two role models, and the reason he entered the Air Force. After leaving the Air Force, Trushaw went on to work as a police officer in Northampton for more than 30 years before retiring as a sergeant in 2012, and continues to work as a special police officer for the department.
“Whether I chose the career path I did because of him, I’m not quite sure, but I’m sure he pointed me in that direction because the discipline part of it sticks in my head,” he said.
As more and more alums saw headlines that a 97-year-old from Easthampton died in a car crash on Labor Day, many started to piece together who that person was, said Michael Noonan, who graduated from the school in 1970.
After coaching DeFilippo’s son Paul, Noonan had become close with the whole family.
“I did not play football, but most of my good friends did and many are still my friends today. He was so well-loved,” he said.
In June, Noonan reached out to Paul DeFilippo and asked if his father might be interested in attending the Class of 1970’s 50th reunion celebration, which had been delayed for two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. DeFilippo’s visit went over well with the class as he spent three hours at the event chatting, taking photos and even sharing a few words.
A few graduates even reminisced about a spaghetti dinner or two put on by DeFilippo’s wife, Anne, and memories with DeFilippo’s six children.
“He remembered everybody. Like, everybody,” Noonan recalled. “It’s funny. I had seen a headline or depiction somewhere calling Coach ‘elderly.’ He wasn’t elderly. He might have been 97. He might have been old. But he was not old.”
His family agreed. DeFilippo was not an “average 97-year-old” as he remained active in his golden years, according to his obituary. David Lucey, who played wide receiver, said he often saw DeFilippo riding his bicycle along the city’s bike path. He also swam regularly, was an avid reader and active gardener.
“I saw him at the reunion — I think he was in better shape than I was,” Lucey said.
DeFilippo’s breadth and depth of influence expanded throughout many generations of graduates of Northampton High.
A native of East Haven, Connecticut, DeFilippo enlisted in the Army Air Corps six months after graduating from high school and was flying on a B-24 bomber at 19 years old. While based in Italy, he flew more than 50 missions during World War II. He was also called back to the Korean War and served as a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard Reserves for more than two decades.
After returning to the United States, he used the GI Bill to attend the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where he was a quarterback on the football team and played in the 1946 Orange Bowl.
Several of his former players followed in their coach’s footsteps, enlisting in various branches of the military. Among those players was Michael Benedisuk, who served in the U.S. Army and was wounded in Vietnam.
DeFilippo’s impact on Benedisuk, who was awarded the Purple Heart, is something he says he’s carried throughout his life.
“I remember nights in Vietnam wondering if I could make it — I would think about the practices we would have, and Wednesday nights were our tough ones. The way I saw it, if you could make it through a Wednesday night, you can make it through anything,” Benedisuk said. “Basic training was a breeze — football practice was way tougher than that.”
Benedisuk, a member of the Class of 1968, fondly recalled a number of DeFilippo’s maxims and reminisced about scrimmages and games throughout his years at Northampton High.
“Benny,” as DeFilippo called him, also saw a different side of his high school football coach, as DeFilippo was also his history teacher for his junior and senior years.
“We were always small in numbers and small in stature — we were always one of the best conditioned teams in the valley,” he said. “He always told us — you may get beat, but you’re not going to get beat because you’re not in shape.”
Similarly, Greg Hurlburt of Easthampton, who played as a guard and linebacker for the Blue Devils, went on to join the Army National Guard.
“He had a huge impact on my life. He taught me a lot about discipline, and taking care of his teammates and they’ll take care of you,” Hurlburt said. “With some of his teachings, ya know, I made it all the way to be a command sergeant major and I was post command sergeant major at Camp Edwards when I retired.”
After serving in the Army, Boyd J Tomasetti, who graduated from the high school in 1962, went on to Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and has become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
He credits DeFilippo with helping him achieve some of the bigger milestones in his life and called him the best coach he’d ever had.
“We reviewed films on Monday nights. If we lost a game, everyone would be on edge because you knew you’d get called out about it. Yet, if there was a bad play, he’d show it one time and give his critique — if someone did something really special, he would rerun that and rerun that. He would give all kinds of praises,” he said. “He was very fair, I thought.”
To DeFilippo, Tomasetti noted, showing up on time to practice meant that “you were late,” as his coach felt it was vital to be at least five minutes early.
Tomasetti would continue to visit with his coach every time he returned home from college until moving to Colorado.
“I was truly saddened to hear about his passing. I think he molded a lot of young men at Northampton High School,” he said. “He certainly affected my life. If I wanted to look at the greatest influences of my life, I would say my dad and Gene DeFilippo. They were by far the mentors, the people that influenced my life.”
Services and burial for DeFilippo are private. A celebration of life will be held in the future, though a date has yet to be determined.
The family plans on installing a bench in Look Park in DeFilippo’s name. Donations will be accepted at Look Memorial Park, 300 N. Main St., Florence MA, 01062.
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A molder of men: Former players, students remember Eugene DeFilippo – GazetteNET