November 30, 2013 at 1:00 am

Terry Foster

Like most of his teams, Al Fracassa's 2013 state champs showed heart, toughness

Brother Rice's Al Fracassa finishes his 57-year coaching career with his eighth state title to go along with 470 victories. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)

Detroit —Butterflies gripped Al Fracassa’s stomach the first time he stepped onto a practice field as Birmingham Brother Rice head football coach.

He walked away Friday with different emotions. He was happy and sad and ready to walk away even though he admitted if he were a few years younger, he’d give it another try.

“If you love something you don’t want to give it up,” Fracassa said. “You all know that.”

Fracassa is gone but his way will live forever with the players that played under him. When he walked into Rice, Fracassa was a young man used to the hard-edge ways of the east side of Detroit and at Royal Oak Shrine. His biggest fear was that the boys who were surrounded by plush communities and one of the top country clubs in the country might be soft.

Maybe they were at first. But their new coach was not, and he continued to look for heart and develop toughness. And maybe that toughness Fracassa developed was the difference Friday as Rice (14-0) won its third consecutive Division 2 state title, beating Muskegon 38-21 and sending its coach out in style.

He leaves with eight state titles and an overall record of 430-117-7.

Old-school football

All the old teachings from the old coach were in place. Rice showed heart, character, toughness, grit and determination. It is tough beating Muskegon in a football game. It is even tougher to beat Muskegon for the second consecutive year in the state title game.

This was not about superior talent beating inferior talent. It was more about what Fracassa established on the high school front 57 years ago still working. It was an old-school hit that wobbled Muskegon for the final time when linebacker Jack Grisan forced Muskegon quarterback Deshaun Thrower to fumble early in the fourth quarter.

Thrower was laid out on the turf by the hit. One play later, Rice quarterback Alex Malzone hit Corey Lacanaria for a 21-yard touchdown pass and a 31-14 lead. That sealed the game.

But by the end, the signs of age showed. While players jumped around for one final photo on a field they owned, Fracassa sat on a chair. A bothersome disc flared up and sidelined the coach. Fracassa remained an involved coach but admitted he did not coach as much today as he did in his younger days.

“I hate to take all of the credit for this,” Fracassa said. “They (the assistants) did most of the coaching and I did most of the yelling.”

Former players on hand

A bunch of Fracassa’s old players from Shrine and Rice showed up to see him on the sideline one last time. They are now gym teachers, lawyers, coaches; some are even retired. Those who graduated from the program are Fracassa Warriors to the end.

The old-school players came by bus and foot. Now his new Warriors drive cars, carry laptops and are new-age Warriors. But they carry a common bond with the old-school Warriors.

“These kids today have more than I ever had,” Fracassa said. “They are smarter. They are open to the media. But the thing you can’t teach a kid is about this.”

Fracassa looks directly ahead and pounds his chest.

“How badly do you want it?” he said. “I can’t coach motivation. The kids either have it or not.”

'Football kept me so busy'

These Warriors have it. They have it because they love a coach who tries to get to know them, even if they are simple junior varsity call-ups. They love him because he even calls colleges on behalf of backup players, telling coaches he’s got a guy who can fit there.

“He has not just been good for Brother Rice. He has been good for the entire Catholic League,” said Catholic League Director of Athletes Vick Michaels. “He has been a part of our coaches association for a long time. He shows so much leadership that we are really going to miss that.”

The best thing about Fracassa is he reaches those both young and old. He learned from Michigan State legends Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty when game film was a luxury. Now he coaches kids that watch games on laptops.

“He comes out with so much energy,” Malzone said. “He has been through all of this which says a lot. He is 81 and he rubs off all of us.”

Emotions boiled inside as he walked down the hallway accepting congrats from game officials, media and anybody that passed him by. He knew this would be his last season and it is something he thought about all season. The end hit him while he sat amongst celebrating players on the 45-yard line at Ford Field.

“Throughout the season I would go home every night and say I could not believe this would be my last year,” Fracassa said. “I tried not to think about it. Football kept me so busy. But it is here and it is time to give somebody else a chance.”

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