By Jerry DeRoche
CRYSTAL FALLS — The Forest Park football program has long been a fortress of stability. Since the program’s inception after consolidation in 1967, the Trojans have had just four head coaches while piling up conference, district and regional championships, culminating with state titles in 1975, 1976, 2007 and 2017.
Even their style of play – a hard-pounding running game – has been consistent.
But the year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought much change across the global, national, regional and local landscape and the Forest Park community and the Trojans football program have not been immune.
In a sudden announcement on Oct. 6, head varsity football coach Dave Graff resigned from his position and varsity assistant Gerard Valesano requested a one-year leave of absence. Both did so after the number of positive COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed in the community and with quarantines commonplace. The Dickinson-Iron District Health Department has reported 10 deaths in the county, including some residents of the Iron County Medical Care Facility in Crystal Falls.
Graff, who took over the head coaching reins from Bill Santilli in 2014, turned in his letter of resignation to the Forest Park Board of Education on Oct. 6 after sending his resignation notification via email on Oct. 2.
In his resignation email to superintendent Christy Larson, principal Jackie Giuliani, athletic director Lisa Olson and the board of education, Graff said he thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to coach the student-athletes and work with the coaching staff and athletic directors through his 25 years in the program.
However, he stated, “even though I believe that football is the greatest sport in the world and definitely support the thought of playing again, the rationale to play it now at Forest Park is the wrong call.
“It is hypocritical as coaches to go against the advice and the social distancing guidelines that have been handed down by our local health department, the CDC and the governor.”
Graff went on pose a series of questions concerning the district’s decision to begin football again given the close contact that the sport requires, and after the district had suspended in-person education for the last two weeks. He also posed a question about the risks of passing along a “potentially deadly virus” to players, coaches, spectators or a vulnerable loved one.
In previous statements since the schoolyear began on Aug. 25, Graff had expressed concern about starting football in the fall. He advocated a suspension of the schedule with a possible restart in the spring.
“We are not a professional team where daily testing is occurring,” Graff said. “So, there may be no way of knowing the damage that could occur until it’s too late.”
Valesano requested his leave for the remainder of the football season on Oct. 2 as well.
Six days later, he said he felt “very good” about his decision and reemphasized what he wrote to athletic director Lisa Olson in an email.
“We’ve always stressed safety first, and I do not feel that football can be played right now in a safe setting,” Valesano said in a phone interview with the Reporter on Oct. 8. “And if I can’t be a hands-on coach, then I can’t be effective as a coach.”
In his email to Olson, Valesano said that even if the Trojans and players practiced safety guidelines, there’s no guarantee that opponents will as well.
He added that as the Crystal Falls city manager, he said coaching football at the same time the city was taking precautions against the virus would be “irresponsible on my part.”
After the bus trip to Newberry on Sept. 18 for the Trojans’ first game and only game to this point, several football players had to quarantine because of contact with a person with a positive test. That quarantine is now over, school officials said.
Even what transpired during the Newberry game alarmed Valesano.
“We thought we could do it safely, but the Newberry game was an eye-opener. Little plastic face shields are just not going to work to keep the players safe.”
“I know the board and the superintendent want a return to normality as much as can be possible,” Graff said in an interview with the Reporter on Oct. 7. “And I know all the good stuff that comes from playing football and other sports. But we have to be accountable for what the community is going through. We have to show our concern for and back our community.”
According to the DIDHD’s numbers, the increase in positive cases in Iron County has been dramatic over the past six weeks. On Sept. 1, the health department reported 32 confirmed and two probable cases. On Oct. 9, the numbers had risen to 288 cases (236 active, 42 recovered, 10 deaths). That’s an increase of nearly 850 percent.
After Graff’s resignation and Valesano’s request for leave, the school district posted the head coach and assistant coach jobs, seeking coaches for the rest of the remaining year. Junior varsity assistants Brian Fabbri and Mick Valesano were set to coach the game against North Dickinson on Oct. 9, but the Nordics chose to forfeit the game because of “uncertainty regarding COVID-19 in the Crystal Falls community.”
During their tenure, Graff and Valesano guided teams to eight state championship appearances, including a state record six in a row.
Before he resigned, Graff wished to make clear that he has “no axes to grind” with anybody at Forest Park.
“We’ve always been promoters of Forest Park and will continue to be. Everybody here has been great. It’s just a difference of opinion.”
Olson remarked on the impact that Graff and Valesano have had on the student-athletes during their tenures.
“I can’t comment on personnel matters, but I just want to thank Dave and Gerard for their years of dedicated service. They have been great role models for all Forest Park athletes.”