May 28, 2014 at 11:32 am

Book honors coach who taught kids that precious victories are found in darkest hours

Brother Rice alum Paddy Lynch has written 'Warrior: A Breviary,' a small book of prayers and meditations that honors the school's longtime football coach, Al Fracassa. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

In 2000, one of Brother Rice High School’s most successful football teams — the team that would go on to win the state championship, rank No. 10 in the country, produce 11 college Division One football players and two NFL players — had broken the code of conduct.

In retrospect, the infraction wasn’t memorable— they’d been drinking or skipped school. But at the time, it was considered such a serious offense Coach Al Fracassa canceled practice, deeming the team unworthy. Then, he assembled the team together. They braced for the verbal lashing, readied themselves for the shame. Instead, they heard this:

“Some of you like to drink. I know you do. You think I’m old, but I was your age once. You like partying and chasing girls. You’re young and handsome and all the girls are beautiful. Someday you’ll find one that’s different. I hope you’re as lucky as me. … No matter what she forgives me. She always forgives me.”

Paddy Lynch was one of Fracassa’s boys then. At 16 years old and a junior, Lynch was full of macho-laden aggression. And yet this was the lesson this extraordinary coach — who won nearly 500 games over the course of 50-plus years of coaching — sought to impress upon the team.

“He went from talking about how we were are idiots and then transitioned to (his wife) Phyllis,” Lynch reflected on a recent Monday afternoon in his historic home in the Boston Edison district of Detroit. “Everybody talks about how Coach won all these games and taught us boys determination and courage, but those type of cliches are no comparison to an old man talking to boys about the miracle of a loving wife.”

It’s with that perspective that Lynch, now a 30-year-old funeral director for Lynch and Sons in Metro Detroit, wrote the recently published “Warrior: A Breviary.” The small book of prayers and meditations honors Fracassa, who at 80 years old finished his 57th year in football coaching in 2013, ranking as the all-time winningest leader in Michigan high school football history and sixth all time in the nation.

The book was also written in memory of Cullen Haffey, a Brother Rice football player who took his own life in August 2012, and whom Lynch had helped coach.

Haffey’s death hit the Brother Rice community especially hard; the high school had never experienced the suicide of an enrolled student. Nor had Fracassa. And Cullen’s father, Kevin, also had played for Fracassa.

“We could not fathom how a young man so handsome and smart and athletic and popular could wind up dead one morning,“ Lynch said. As the officiator of the funeral, Lynch asked Fracassa to carry the cross in the procession of the pallbearers and casket. “Coach carried the cross both literally and figuratively that day,” Lynch said.

A 2002 graduate of Brother Rice and team captain, Lynch went on to play football at Boston College, where he double-majored in English and Theology. After graduation, Lynch moved to Haiti where he worked with orphans and also assisted Mother Teresa’s Order, the Missionaries of Charity, at one of their homes for the sick and dying.

But the abject poverty of Haiti rocked Lynch to his core. When he returned, he was in a dark place. Lynch says he drank heavily for five or six years before hitting bottom. Not long after he got sober, Fracassa asked him to help him coach his linebackers. Lynch said he wasn’t sure what to expect. “But I accepted his offer and it changed my life all over again.”

He said he decided to write the book in the fall of 2013. “It was after we’d lost Cullen. Coach knew it was his last season and he was feeling a lot of loss,” Lynch said.

Rather than focus on Fracassa’s astonishing career, Lynch chose the lessons learned through loss and sacrifice. Lynch writes in the introduction: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Fracassa, it’s that the most precious victories, the most beautiful are the ones we discover in the desert of our lives, deep down in the valleys of doubt and defeat.”

Famous for writing every one of his boys’ personal handwritten letters in his beautiful penmanship, Lynch says his letter from Fracassa (his message was twofold: “Remember where you came from and “Pray, always.”) was taped on his headboard of his bed throughout college. He took the letter with him to Haiti with him and it remains today a treasured keepsake.

When Fracassa read “Warrior,” he called Lynch and left a phone message. “I got a big lump in my throat Paddy,” said the voice gruff and harsh as sandpaper after all those decades of projecting across a football field. “I’m so happy and proud that you’re one of my boys. I love you like a son.”

How to buy the book

How to buy the book

“Warrior: A Breviary” by Paddy Lynch costs $10. Proceeds benefit the Cullen Haffey Memorial Fund. It can be purchased at Brother Rice High School, 7101 Lahser Road, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301 and at brrice.edu/warriorbookpost/

mkeenan@detroitnews.com