Jan 9, 2014
12:37 PM
Education

Connecticut Family's Touchdown Pass: Football as Arena for Improving Young Lives

Connecticut Family's Touchdown Pass: Football as Arena for Improving Young Lives

Frank DiCocco in the classroom; courtesy of the DiCocco family.

There are too many ways to start this story—a story about football, “real men,” mentoring young people and giving them a set of solid values built on respect, the growing influence and impact of The H.O.P.E. Foundation (Helping Other People Excel) and, ultimately, the great hope embodied by a Connecticut family that lost a beloved son and is passionately carrying on his mission.

Most young men benefit from the counsel of a loving father, but not all—or even most—are fortunate enough to have an arguably more important mentor, an inspirational coach; the story might start like that.

Or it could take a different approach: While this week’s college football title game between Florida State University and Auburn would have thrilled one late football coach as much as it did the nation, the coach might have focused more on a subtext of the game, the sexual assault allegations against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston that now have the young woman’s family planning to file a civil lawsuit. That plot line represents a high-profile link to his work mentoring young people, building their character and empowering them to make the right decisions.

Or this one: When football coaches from across the nation gather Jan. 12 to 15 at the National Football Coaches Association convention in Indianapolis, Ind., each will receive a copy of the book, Playbook for Manhood: A Game Plan for Being a REAL Man, and they will hear the family of the late Frank DiCocco describe his mission to help young people lead more productive and positive lives through character development initiatives, scholarships, and endowments.  

DiCocco, who coached football at prominent high schools and at the collegiate level, suffered from bone marrow failure and died April 30, 2013, at the age of 29. He was so driven to help young people and the disadvantaged that he passed up potential coaching staff positions at Yale and West Point in favor of coaching at Stillman College, an NCAA Division II institution in Tuscaloosa, Ala.—and he accomplished so much good in so short a time.

Notably, he created The REAL Man Character Development Program (Respect all people, Especially women, Always do the right thing, and Live a life that matters) that features 20 lesson plans to teach youth how to understand right from wrong and make the right choice when faced with a decision.  His comprehensive character-education curriculum designed specifically for young men was developed for and implemented by the National Football League's Youth Impact Programwhich works with at-risk inner-city students in partnership with college and football teams. 

In 2010, DiCocco developed the idea for a foundation to assist underprivileged youth in order to ensure the positive social development of the world, and the next year he established The H.O.P.E. Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, originally based in South Florida.

Almost immediately after DiCocco’s death, his parents, Lou and Kathy DiCocco of Farmington, joined by DiCocco’s sister, Nicole, stepped in to continue the mission.

Professionally, Kathy DiCocco had been an inventory cost accounting manager and accountant who also taught accounting and finance at two Connecticut colleges. Lou DiCocco founded Empire Development, LLC in the 1970s, which constructed buildings nationwide, and was also an entrepreneur in commercial real estate development. In 1984, he founded Alternative Heath Care, a publicly traded company consisting of medical centers, physical therapy centers, and an HMO serving the Northeast.

The DiCoccos are directors of the foundation and Nicole is Executive Director of Nationwide Expansion & Fundraising.

“This was my son’s wish. He had worked on this character development program for three or four years … We had no choice but to take this on,” Kathy DiCocco said in a phone interview Wednesday that touched on all aspects of her son’s mission, the upcoming trip to the 2014 AFCA National Convention and the news that The H.O.P.E. Foundation has just partnered with Hartford’s Camp Courant, the oldest and largest free summer program in the nation.

The H.O.P.E. Foundation will introduce The REAL Man Character Development Program to nearly 1,100 children during the 2014 summer program, a release on the partnership explains. Camp Courant, which brings youths ages 5 to 12 to a camp in Farmington to participate in a variety of recreational, cultural and educational programs, will implement The H.O.P.E. Foundation pilot program “to help teach the next group of campers character development lessons.”

The H.O.P.E Foundation sponsored campers last year—who attend for free—and will do so again in 2014, as well as donating all books and materials for the character program to the summer camp that starts in June.

“Together we hope to change our community and instill a fundamental understanding and direction for all of the children in our program as they enter the next step of their personal journey,” Camp Courant Director and CEO Josh Reese said in a release. Kathy DiCocco explained that the partnership developed when the family met Reese “and told him about Frank and his program.”

“Frank had often written about starting a camp,” Kathy DiCocco recalled, saying of the Camp Courant affiliation, and the mission in general, “It makes us feel good that we are helping people. Frank is teaching kids how to succeed in life.”

DiCocco was a coach who lived his dream by providing young people with a "playbook" on how to lead a positive life by treating others with respect, and living as an example of exemplary character each day, the release on the partnership says. A graduate of Avon Old Farms School and Boston College, DiCocco served as an assistant coach and player development director for nearly a decade, including stops at Avon Old Farms and Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School in Massachusetts, before heading to Stillman College.

The H.O.P.E. Foundation he created emphasizes four main areas of impact, including:

1) Scholarships & Sponsorships for schools, camps, & academic opportunities

2) Youth development programs, initiatives and resource funding

3) Awareness & Prevention Programs, advocacy & outreach efforts, and additional work with support groups & victim-assistance programs

4) Broad-based community engagement, investment, and improvement initiatives

Advocacy and outreach will come into play when Lou and Kathy DiCocco travel to the 2014 American Football Coaches Association Convention. They had attended such a convention in Orlando with their son, and looking to the future, Kathy recalled, he said, “Please donate my book to every coach in attendance.”

 

Gathered in Indianapolis will be about 6,000 coaches and 10,000 people altogether, representing levels of the sport from the NFL down to Pop Warner. “We have a booth rented,” Kathy said, and they will personally be handing out “Frank’s book to every coach.”

Their presence will be formally announced to the coaches gathered in a couple of different sessions, and “We’ll give a presentation about Frank with some pictures,” Kathy said. Coaches will then be directed to their booth to get copies of the book.

Last January, she noted, Frank personally sent out 6,000 copies of book. “I was getting calls in early May [right after he died] … from coaches all over the country,” in places like California, Texas, even Hawaii, expressing their condolences, along with admiration for Frank and gratitude for the book that encapsulated his mission.

“We are just on a mission to keep his legacy alive, and coaches pick up on Frank’s passion,” Kathy said, noting the importance of coaches as teachers: “The kids look up to their coaches.” Another phenomenon of contemporary society that heightens the role and responsibility of coaches is the trend of high-profile athletes not being role models for young people, but instead, as Kathy said, “collapsing in front of them.”

“We [want] to get this program in the hands of educators as well as coaches,” Kathy said. “It’s really for youth everywhere.” The effort means targeting Connecticut schools, and already a guidance counselor at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury uses it. (Kathy was born in Waterbury and still has family there, and the DiCoccos, who live in Farmington, formerly lived in Southbury.)

The for-youth-everywhere approach is just another outgrowth of Frank DiCocco’s expansive desire to help. The most telling anecdote involves the football program at Yale. Kathy DiCocco recounted how her son was participating in a summer camp one year at Yale, driving  to New Haven and back every day. One day, he came home and said they wanted him to coach.

Joining the staff at a hallowed Ivy League program was a labeled a “no-brainer” by everyone, Kathy said—everyone, that is, except Frank. “He ends up turning Yale and West Point down and going to Stillman College. He said, ‘Those kids need me more.’”

How could he make such a declaration, and decision? Because Frank’s guiding principle was, “I’m in the sport to change lives,” not just win games.

And that meant he took his activism far beyond the football field. “Wherever he happened to be … he always took on coaching football as his community service because he just loved the sport so much,” Kathy said.

Even when he was in Palm Beach, Fla., there were kids whom he considered “inner city, at risk,” and to help them he would take them grocery shopping on his own time, hold fundraisers, sometimes even cook them dinner.

When he coached at Stillman in Alabama, he sent tickets so all the neighborhood kids and students at the local elementary school so they could attend games. “He’d pass out Stillman College T-shirts to the elementary school kids,” Kathy recalled.

So you can see how taking on Frank’s mission is the only thing that the DiCoccos could have done after his death.

“He was just passionate about this. He did the best he could and we have to keep it going,” Kathy said. “It makes me personally feel like I am helping the world, we are helping the next generation. We’ll try and do that for as long as we can.”

“If we could help one kid somewhere, then we’ve been successful,” she added.

The H.O.P.E. Foundation and the DiCocco family has already been successfully thousands of times over—not only through Frank’s work, and now that of his parents and sister, but also through scholarships that have been given.

Kathy and Lou DiCocco went to Stillman in August to establish an endowment and scholarship there, and they have done the same at Avon Old Farms.

It’s all about fulfilling Frank’s “wish” and mission, and creating a better and more successful future for young people in general, and specifically those who come together around the sport of football.

For more information on Frank DiCocco and his charity, see the foundation’s website at www.hopefoundation.us. To learn more about Hartford’s Camp Courant’s program and history, see the website at www.campcourant.org.

 

Connecticut Family's Touchdown Pass: Football as Arena for Improving Young Lives

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