When longtime Green Wave football Coach Jim Kelliher finally hangs up his whistle some day in the fiuture, he’ll be remembered for many things: Mentoring hundreds of Abington high school student athletes. Any of his 300 victories. The 5 Super Bowl titles (or 6, depending on how it goes on Dec. 6 against Rockland). The dyed green hair.
One of his biggest legacies, however, may involve the game he didn’t coach.
Last Friday, with another trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and sitting on win 299, Jim Kelliher was at home, watching his squad play in the state semifinals via Abington Community Access & Media. Hours earlier the 48-year coaching veteran had tested positive for COVID-19. He called Athletic Director Peter Serino and his coaching staff to report his status and tell them he wouldn’t be on the sidelines that night; instead he would be following isolation protocols as required.
It’s easy to say every coach in Kelliher’s situation would have made the same decision; but the sports almanacs are filled with examples of competitive people making bad decisions. Kelliher says it never crossed his mind to do anything but the right thing.
“I feel fine… I don’t feel sick, but for other people it could be different,” he said. “There’s no way I want to take that chance.”
Nobody in the Abington school community said they were surprised at Kelliher’s actions.
“I’m sure it was incredibly difficult for him to be home watching the game but he did the right thing, as he always does, with the kids’ safety and well-being again being his number one priority,” said Kelliher’s longtime assistant coach Ed Reilly. “Everything this man does is a teaching moment for the kids.”
School Committee Member Heidi Hernandez said Kelliher demonstrated the importance of doing the right thing even when it’s difficult.
“As I always said to my students, there isn’t always a trophy or reward attached to doing the right thing,” she said. “Learn to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.”
Athletic Director Peter Serino said Kelliher set a good example and standard for Abington’s student-athletes.
“He has created and built an environment where students are held accountable, and ultimately taught personal accountability. [He] lives what he preaches and this is a testament to that,” Serino said. “The health and safety of the students is always paramount, and although the stakes were high in this game, with a trip to the State Championship for the team, and a personal accolade with his 300th win, he stayed true to his values.”
Reilly said Kelliher told him his status Friday morning and they made the decision to tell the players immediately after school so they could “process it” before arriving at the locker room later that afternoon, as well as reach out to parents and explain the situation.
School officials said because the team had been following recommended safety guidelines during practices and meetings no other players or coaches were required to quarantine as a close contact.
“I know everyone respects Coach Kelliher for many things. Making decisions in the best interests of the students we serve, is one of those things,” Superintendent Peter Schafer said. “Minimally, coaching while ill and exposing students, parents and staff to COVID would have disrupted the [t]eam with additional Close Contacts.”
Following the team’s exciting 26-20 win over St. Mary’s Friday night, the team buses drove straight to Kelliher’s Dorsey Street home so the players and coaches could celebrate with him. Kelliher stayed near his porch, holding a Green Wave football banner, while the players remained on the sidewalk.
“Love you, Coach!,” many players yelled.
Although the Super Bowl is scheduled for Dec. 6, Abington has spent the past week prepping for its annual Thanksgiving Day game against Whitman-Hanson. Kelliher said he and the coaching staff have been in regular phone contact to finalize game preparations.
“They call me and I call them and we talk about it,” Kelliher said, admitting he’s spent the past few days “walking around the house in circles.”
He said it helps that many of his coaches have been with him for a few years with several having played for him.
“We know each other and how to work with each other,” Kelliher said.
With the Thanksgiving Day game approaching fast, and then a quick pivot to the Super Bowl showdown against Rockland, Kelliher hopes he’ll be cleared soon to return. But until that happens, he won’t be taking any chances or trying to sneak back early.
“It’s not worth it, to fool around with it when it’s someone else’s life and livelihood that can be disrupted because of what I did,” he said. “It’s just not worth it. It’s important to make sure everyone is as safe as can be and as healthy as can be.”
That’s the attitude that endears Kelliher to his colleagues so much.
“With Coach Kelliher, many people see the wins and the success on the field, but what is most impressive with him is what he does off the field,” Serino said. “[Kelliher’s] response to this situation does not come as a surprise; he always puts his players and coaches first.”
“He is a true role model for his players [and coaches] as he not only consistently preaches being a gentleman and doing the right thing,” said Reilly, “but his own actions on a daily basis show the kids that he is a man of integrity and a man of true character.”
Hernandez said Kelliher’s actions demonstrate that the town has been right to place their trust in his hands all these years.
“Coach showed us we can trust him to make the safer choice for his players and his community,” she said. “There is so much good here. And even if they had lost, those out there paying attention won for the bigger life lesson he provided.”