A buzzing sound of a cellphone, so early in the morning forced me from a deep slumber.
It is rare for most to message me at that time, knowing because I work nights that even on a Monday my body sleeps in. Even through my ignoring of it, the buzzing continued to remind me. I thought, maybe this was urgent. My wife delivered the news that shook my emotions.
“Mark Rinaldi died,” it read.
This couldn’t be. I pleaded with her that she was wrong. But the harsh reality stung. In the immediacy of the moment, we had lost a truly great contributor to the community and our lives.
I couldn’t shake the shock all day. Even after I began a cathartic string of phone calls with his closest friends to chat about a man who dedicated his life to his family, his friends, athletes, many of whom he never really knew, and the sports he loved.
He was only 54 years old. Still devoting endless hours to the high school landscape and Dunmore High School.
Days like Monday are feared by any local sports writer. When I started this job, I found out, you forge friendships. It’s inevitable. And, if you are at it long enough, you will lose those who you know very well.
In between trying to find the right words to describe the man to those who didn’t know him as well as his family at Dunmore did, I kept thinking back to December of 1998. I had just been promoted from sports clerk to high school boys basketball beat writer. My first assignment — The Lynett Memorial Basketball Tournament. No pressure. I had never been a beat writer before and I had little to no idea how to tackle this assignment. I was a lot more green than one might think.
With the assignment of covering the most important event at our newspaper came a lot of pressure. Early in the process, I reached out to Mark Rinaldi. I introduced myself as Joby Fawcett and explained my nervousness because it was my first year on the job. He chuckled, in his sometimes sinister laugh, and said it was his too, so we would get through this together.
Mark was following a very successful and engaging coach, Jack Kelly. And he explained to me then, if I wanted to know pressure, try being a first-year head coach for one of the top programs in a tournament that means so much to his community and be the defending champions. But, cagey as he was, Mark found the perfect way to release the pressure with this quote,
“We are aware that we have been successful in the tournament. We’d like to do well. We are going against a very good team in Bishop O’Hara in the first round. I think its going to be a little bit of a role reversal from last year. Last year we were the favorite, this year Bishop O’Hara will likely be favored.”
That was Mark. Put the bull’s eye on another team and say it bluntly.
I recalled the conversation like it happened yesterday. But it wasn’t.
Through the years, Mark and I built more than just a professional relationship. No, we weren’t social friends, but when you start a journey, even in the workplace, and your families grow at the same time, you share more than a professional relationship.
I remember his wife, Annie, and the kids coming to the games. Young Johnny was just a tyke back in those early years. Mark Jr. was born during those early years, and he and my oldest daughter, Meghan, are now entering their senior years.
As a coach, Mark couldn’t have been a better person to work with when you are an aspiring writer. He stayed true to that first sentiment with me, that we would get through this together. Anybody who knew Mark, knew he was a competitor. Fiery and intense. But after a game, after John or Mark Jr. gave him a hug, he talked with me and helped put it all in perspective. He’d hold those boys and tell me, don’t forget who is important. I used to love to see his kids collecting and shooting the balls before and after games.
After six years, and much success, Mark gave me a me a head’s up — He was leaving coaching. It stunned me, but I could see, and in talking with him, knew he had higher aspirations. When Jack Kelly left his post as athletic director, it only made sense that Mark would be his successor.
Mark has been described as headstrong, hard-working, organized and committed. I saw every bit of that. He had so many responsibilities as an officer of the Lackawanna Interscholastic Athletic Association and of the Lackawanna Football Conference. He sometimes would call me just to talk about the challenges sports in our area were beginning to face. Enrollment differences were creating imbalances in competition, he knew, but Mark always had a special longing for the tradition of the area.
There were times he would endure long, exhaustive rants by me and some of my hair-brain solutions to bring back the old days. He’d smile, I hoped intrigued by my energy, but more to just let me roll with my saving ideas. Then, when I needed to catch my breath, he would acknowledge my thinking, and follow with, “But, what about. … ”
Mark, while he made sure to keep the best interest of Dunmore athletic programs in mind, always thought of the impact any change had on everybody from the largest schools to the smallest schools.
Then one day, I was covering John as a varsity member of the Bucks football, basketball and track teams. I looked around and thought, this is the little guy who used to tug at his dad’s pants looking for the right time to go ahead and fire up shots after games. Where had the time gone?
Young John was a heck of an athlete. I always knew his first love was basketball and slam dunking in games, but I really enjoyed the great success he had in track and field. Mark did too. He knew I was a track guy from way back, and we often spoke of his son’s journey to being an All-Region jumper. When it came time for him to go to college he pursued his dream of playing Division I basketball at Binghamton University as a walk-on. The first thing I would ask him when we were together was how John was doing? He worked through some very hard times, to enjoy the great times and proudly graduate this spring.
Young Mark is also a multi-sport athlete. He plays both versions of football, basketball and track. And he competes in the hurdles, my favorite event. Just last week, as I started getting ready for the 2017 season, I saw that Mark had an amazing season as a kicker and is an all-star soccer player. There is just something about watching a child grow up to be a high school athlete. It’s been fun for me.
Mark couldn’t have been more proud.
And he had every reason to be.
His boys, his pride and joys, were chips off the old block. Mark was a gifted athlete at Dunmore and he loved the Bucks.
Mark was always the athletic director I knew he would be. At the first sign of snow or inclement weather, he understood the importance of information getting to the public. He would text me immediately after a decision had been made concerning his programs. Then, even in this technological era, he would follow with a call, just to talk about how the league schedule would play out and be completed on time.
As a site manager, he welcomed me with open arms. He would make sure I, or anybody on the staff, had everything they needed, including a place to work. He ran a tight ship and that included taking media responsibilities into account. Mark was the ultimate professional. When I had to cover a state baseball game, he knew baseball was not my normal beat in the spring, so he went the extra mile to help me. He gathered the lineup cards and rosters. He made sure I had access to the teams and coaches after the game. He knew his job, he took it seriously and approached each assignment with vigor.
Two years ago, I covered a state lacrosse playoff match and Mark welcomed me at the ticket gate. I said to him, how much do you know about lacrosse? He replied, not much. Me either, I assured him. Lo and behold, here we were getting through it together, again.
At a recent state baseball game, Mark and I got to talking. The calendar is moving fast, we thought. He told me we had to set up a meeting soon to talk about the next two-year cycle for football. Bill Schoen was there, and we chatted about an idea of having one Thursday night game during Weeks 2 through 9. It would be a way to get more schools and programs an important game. Again, Mark was always thinking about all of the schools.
During that conversation, Mark noticed my increasingly painful limp with my three-time surgically repaired left knee. I said to him, we had been at this a long time and I was growing old. I asked him, how long before you retire? He just threw out a number. … 3 years maybe. I said, I’ll probably never retire. He reminded me again, just as he had in his post game interviews with his sons in his arms, to not forget what is important.
Mark Rinaldi has been to me more than someone I worked with. No, I didn’t see him every day like his colleagues and students at Dunmore High School. No, I didn’t get to have too many lunches or dinners with him — except at Lynett Tournament time. No, I never had the pleasure of being a teammate or an athlete coached by him. But we shared a big part of our lives together, and losing him hurts.
I regret not having the chance to tell him, thank you.
So, if you, Mark, can somehow see these words, I won’t forget what is important. Because you, too, whether you knew it or not, were an important part of it all.