It's funny how fate has its way. Sam Cario, Sachem's original wrestling coach from the 1950s, on a trip to visit his fiancée, stopped at a gas station near Ithaca College where Don Woolley was working at the time.
"He asked if I would service his car and I went out of my way to help him," said Woolley, now 80, from his telephone in St. Augustine, Fla. "We got to talking and he set me up with an appointment for an interview."
Sachem, still small and growing then, was looking for two physical education teachers. Woolley, finishing up his senior year at Ithaca after fighting in the , said 12 applied, he was hired and taught elementary gym and coached soccer at the high school, a position he held from 1958 to 1973.
A gifted athlete at Cranford High School in New Jersey, Woolley was an All-County football player and ran the quarter-mile race in track, an event he excelled in and won county and state titles. In 1949, he ran the quarter mile in 50.1 seconds.
Had Ithaca not rang the Woolley household in need of a runner for that event, he was dead set on working at the phone company with his father.
"They were looking for guys who ran and saw my name in the paper somewhere," he said. "My dad wanted me to go and I would have been happy working for the phone company. He said to go for a year and see what happens."
He originally intended on playing football at Ithaca, but the track coaches weren't excited about him taking a pounding, so he played soccer and wrestled. Soccer did him in anyway as he broke his right ankle playing against Army in the first game of his collegiate career.
Over the next few years he learned the sport though, enough for him to one day be one of the most respected head coaches on Long Island.
"I guess I was more of a student of the sport because I didn't know a whole lot," he said. "Offensive and defensive set ups didn't come natural. I had to work at it."
Woolley reached Sachem in 1956, when the high school wasn't yet built. There was a ninth grade and after that year, students attended Bayport-Blue Point or Port Jefferson High Schools to finish their credits.
Samoset Middle School, the home of the original Sachem High School, was erected shortly after and Woolley was tasked with starting a track and field team, as well as a soccer program and jumped on as an assistant wrestling coach to Cario at one point. He was submerged in helping create the foundations of Sachem's athletic program, and his days as a teacher and coach had an impact not only on the athletes he taught, but the district had one of the best motivational speakers around.
"Kids responded to him," said , who was Woolley's JV coach, assistant and eventual successor. "Great coaching is sometimes great acting and not in a phony sense, but being passionate. He had that and the kids bought in."
For Woolley, it was cyclical. If the kids were happy, he was happy and that lasted during his entire tenure at Sachem. He was the gym teacher playing quarterback with the kids during class and the local life guard at Lake Ronkonkoma.
"I enjoyed my job," he said. "Kids can see that. My wife used to say that I was the only one she knew who got up smiling when I had to go to work."
Among the numerous athletes that went on to have successful careers was Ray Fell, who played soccer at Sachem and Ithaca and eventually rose to Superintendent in Patchogue-Medford Schools.
"He taught you how to play the game of life and the game of soccer very well," said Fell. "He was someone you wanted to emulate. His moral character and ethics were very high. He always seemed to do the right thing all the time. You felt like you wanted to be like him when you grew up and he had a profound influence in my life."
Fell recalls going to his house with teammates after he graduated
"I called him many times, what do you think I should do?" Fell said. "He grew to be much more than a teacher and a coach, but a real friend and someone you could count on at any time."
The Sachem Soccer Dynasty
Between 1960 and 1970, Sachem soccer won seven titles: six league and one county. Woolley was nominated by the Wilson Sporting Company as one of the 100 best high school coaches in the early 1960s and he was influential in the early years of the Suffolk County High School Soccer Coaches Association.
His most memorable coaching moment came early on in 1961 when Sachem won its first county title, beating Southold, 4-2. He still remembers it and recalls England product John Knight playing right wing.
"We had the local kids from all the towns in the district," he said. "I don't think I had any terrific group from one town, it was a sprinkling from all of them."
A close second was snapping Mattituck's 22-year home-unbeaten streak after winning 3-1 on the road in the early '60s.
"They were a force," Schmidt said. "They had an unbelievable soccer program."
"Mattituck had a swagger about them," added Fell, who played in the game. "I'll never forget that day."
What Fell remembers is Mattituck's propensity to play the role of soar losers upon defeat.
"They began to take cheap shots," he said. "Don called us over and looked us in the eyes and said, 'Don't you, in any way, take a cheap shot at them. Play the game hard, but no cheap shots.'"
Since winning became the norm for Sachem soccer, and Woolley was a real competitor, losing wasn't in the best interest of the program.
"His players loved him," Schmidt said. "He always valued loyalty and they were afraid of him when they lost."
Schmidt recalls one time in Bay Shore after a loss when Woolley made the team jog along side the bus for a bit. They got the point. It's lessons like that, which rung through the halls of Sachem for years.
The War Years
"For years when I was his JV coach we'd be changing in the locker room and there was this large scar that ran underneath his shoulder blade," Schmidt said.
During his time at Ithaca, he took a hiatus to serve in the United States Army in order to fight in the Korean War.
At one point, a few soldiers, including Woolley, went to check a factory to find out if it was an ammunition plant. Because of certain peace treaties that were signed, they could not be caught.
"He talked a little bit about it but not much," Fell recalled.
"They did the Hollywood thing," said Schmidt, who told this story to his history classes at Sachem, but didn't get permission from Woolley to use his name until years later. "They muddied up their faces, went in the middle of the night to find this building."
Walking through the trenches off a dirt road, they heard trucks stop. Enemy soldiers jumped out, ran to Woolley's position and immediately started stabbing the ground with their bayonets. By this time, Woolley and his comrades dove into the high grass and remained silent. Woolley's back was punctured in the onslaught.
"It's like someone putting a torch, a hot flame on you," Woolley once told Schmidt.
"He bit down so not to scream and cracked all his back molars," Schmidt added. "They were shaking Don a little bit, but the solider didn't know he hit a body. The others found Don and carried him back to base. He's a real patriot, a real American."
Years before led the football program to great heights, before was a wrestling legend and won 450 games on the baseball diamond there was Woolley. A kind man with the heart of a lion and more passion for Sachem than just about anyone who is privileged to be a part of the school district.
The soccer field was named in his honor at Sachem on Oct. 25, 1990 prior to his retirement and he was inducted into the Sachem Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003.
His daughter married , one of his favorite students, and also a longtime Sachem football and lacrosse coach. Chris Petillo, his grandson, went on to play football at Bellport High School for , a Sachem alum who Woolley still praises for his dedication even back then.
He's been in Florida since 1994. At his retirement party, Fell gave a speech about the old coach.
"At the end, I said 'Sachem is very lucky to have had Don Woolley and Sachem is Don Woolley,'" he said. "Sachem epitomized who he was."
The Woolley File
- Head varsity soccer coach 1958-1973
- Career record: 154-73-23
- Six League titles
- Suffolk County Champions in 1961
- Soccer field at Sachem was named "Woolley Field"
- Also coached: Varsity women's soccer, varsity wrestling, men's and women's track and varsity men's volleyball
- Inducted to Sachem Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003