Thursday May 18, 2017
Fighting back tears, Rene LaBerge stood on the stage as hundreds of administrators, coaches, football players and their parents honored the man who has spent the last 50 years coaching youth football in South Burlington.
LaBerge is the father of Vermont youth football. When the program first started five decades ago, South Burlington and Burlington both fielded two teams. Essex joined soon after, then Winooski, and more and more teams have joined as the years have gone by. Now, Vermont youth football is a first through eighth grade program in which thousands of kids around the state learn the game of football, and more importantly, the game of life. LaBerge has spent a great deal of time, money, and effort on building up and maintaining youth football around the state and not just in South Burlington. He believes that the lessons a young person can learn in football are too great for anyone to miss out on the opportunity to play. In South Burlington, he has played a very special role in teaching those life lessons.
As he celebrates 50 years of coaching, LaBerge’s perspective is a unique reflection of coaching and life. “I just got a note from a kid the other day,” LaBerge remembered. “‘Rene, you saved my life three times.’ I know I saved the lives of a lot of kids, and it wouldn’t have been without the discipline and stuff they learned here. You have to know when to put an arm around him or kick him in the butt, leave them alone, let them make a mistake and learn the hard way,” he said. LaBerge has worked with thousands of kids over the years, many of whom needed a positive adult influence in their life, and he viewed his role as someone who could fill that void. He used football as a gateway to teaching these young people the lessons that would carry them toward not just success in football, but the world that awaited them after high school as well. He stated that watching the success of the kids, on and off the field has been the most rewarding part of coaching, especially those who had been taught the work ethic and became successful.
A story he mentions to kids often is the 1998 NFL Draft in which quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were selected first and second overall. He recalls how each player responded to the events that transpired. Leaf went to Vegas to celebrate. Peyton, on the other hand, ordered all the game film from every team he’d be playing his rookie season. Both quarterbacks were uniquely talented, but one had an incredible work ethic while the other did not. Every kid today knows who Peyton Manning is, but Ryan Leaf? It’s a pretty important story to tell about work ethic, and that’s just one of the many ways that Coach LaBerge taught PRIDE to his players.
Personal Responsibility For Individual Daily Effort, otherwise known as PRIDE, is the foundation of Coach LaBerge’s practice. This is the approach he applies in his own life, and this is the message he ingrains in his players. Talent means nothing. Potential, nothing. Those who are successful in life are those who are willing to go the extra mile; put in the work that no one else is putting in. Kiya Batmanglidj, who was coached by LaBerge in the 80’s remembers, “He imbued those children with the values of hard work, perseverance, and responsibility that helped them to succeed in life and become valued members of their communities. In short, Rene’s coaching taught kids the skills to succeed, but his humanity made them better people,” he said.
Championships were secondary to everything else LaBerge wanted to embed in his program. Success on the field was a by-product of the life lessons he’d teach his players every single day.
His influence did not end when the players moved on to high school, either. Current Burlington coach and former Wesleyan quarterback Brennan Carney remembers LaBerge helping him train after his freshman year of college to help him raise his game for the next season. LaBerge utilized a fish net to help Carney learn to make accurate throws from the three step, five step, and play action part of his game. LaBerge had been prepared to stay with Carney all day, and that’s just the kind of role he played in his players’ lives. “He was always going to pick up the phone if you needed him, he was always going to help you out, and he would never say no. He was our ‘youth football coach’ that represented everything a young man should try to become. I am now a coach, and every time a kid asks me to do something, I know Rene wouldn’t say no, so why would I?” Carney said.
In addition to spending entire days with former players to help them raise their game, he was also someone who’d step up in the most challenging of times. Former player and now Essex Chargers head coach Tony Arcovitch remembers Coach LaBerge as the glue who kept his life together when he desperately needed someone to play that role. “Rene has influenced my life more than any other person. He was there for me when I was going through a very difficult time. He taught me to channel my pain and anger through the game of football. Rene gave me the love and sense of PRIDE for the game that I carry with me today. He always said to give back. At an early age, I decided that a coach was there for me when I needed it most in my life, and that I will be there for someone else. My goal in life was to influence just one player the way Rene did for me,” Arcotvith said. After 30 years of coaching and more than 20 years at the helm of the Essex Chargers, Arcovitch has influenced countless number of people the same way that LaBerge did for him.
Even current South Burlington student-athletes are already aware of the impact of their time in the Dolphin youth football program. “The most important thing I learned from the program was the value of hard work and perseverance,” Manny Boardman, a fellow award winner at the same May 7 banquet, said. “I learned that most of the important things in life don’t come easy; that if you want to be successful, you have to work hard. This is something that I continually try to apply to all areas of my life,” he said. This lesson appears to be a strategy that all of his former athletes apply to their lives. LaBerge’s former players are located all over the country. 50 of them are coaching high school or college football. There are a wide range of careers and life paths, but one thing is constant: all of these players remember PRIDE. “I could call on any place, in any profession, and one of my boys is there,” LaBerge said.
Over the last 50 years, LaBerge has a lot of fond memories, but his fondest of all was when his wife Linda was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame. He realizes how things would have been different without her by his side. “There is no way I could ever, ever, ever in a million years do this this long without her. She held the fort down no matter what,” he said. In addition to his wife, many people over the years have helped out the program, especially the Belisle family, who spent more than 33 years contributing to the success of the South Burlington Dolphins. Dick, Nancy, Brian and Jody all played important roles over the years, as did long-time coaches Tom Tavares, Bob Gilding, and Sam Jackson.
LaBerge believes his greatest accomplishment is all the kids who are carrying on PRIDE. Says long time Dolphin coach Tom Tavares, “The lessons of discipline, hard work, tenacity and tough love will extend for generations through his former players,” and that appears to be exactly what has happened.
Football is a sport unlike any other. In the game of football, each player has to do their job. On any given play, if just one person doesn’t do their job, the team cannot be successful. In some ways, that’s how life works too. In building a football team, coaches teach many lessons that players will apply throughout their lives. Players need people in their corner who will help them succeed and fail, learn to be a part of a team, to work hard, to persevere through difficulty and ultimately to be a good human being. When this is achieved, success is found on and off the field. That’s who Coach Rene LaBerge has been for so many people over the years. He’s the type of person who would lend a hand, an ear, a home, and even a fishing net to his players if it could help them succeed. He’s spent an endless amount of time over the years on that practice field training, teaching, and mentoring his players. Former player JJ Jones remembers, “The practice field in South Burlington is a sacred place: a place where countless numbers of young people have learned what hard work and dedication is all about. The sport of football teaches so many lessons that apply equally in the game of life: You play like you practice. The importance of teamwork. There is no substitute for hard work,” he said.
It is clear that Coach LaBerge has practiced what he’s preached: PRIDE. Here’s to 50 years of influence and achievement.
SOURCE: Drew Gordon, Correspondent