A memorial was held on Friday night honoring the life and career of the late John Faller, who passed away suddenly two weeks ago after leading the Sweet Home Panthers’ football and lacrosse teams for more than 40 years.
While it is impossible to speak with every athlete or coach whose life he touched, WNY Athletics caught up with some of the people who attended the memorial and received their thoughts on Faller as a coach, teacher and human being. Here are their thoughts:
Chris Lyon, lacrosse, Class of 2007
“Coach Faller had a way with words. The way he spoke always ensured he got the most out of his players. Whether it was during a practice or during a game, he always knew what each individual needed to hear to get the most out of them.
“I can remember back in 2007, it was our quarterfinal playoff game against Grand Island. It was a close game, 6-5 with two minutes left to go in regulation and we were a man down. He pulled me aside after the opposition’s timeout and he told me ‘This is the defining moment of this game. Keep everyone communicating and we’ll be playing again next week.’
As a 17-year old, I didn’t think much of it. I wanted to win, so I did what he told me. I made sure our defense was on the same page and we all had great communication. Grand Island took a bad shot, I made an easy save, launched the ball down the field and we won the game.
It took me a few years to realize that just that single moment with Coach Faller – he was teaching me how to be a leader. He was teaching me that communication is a fundamental of life itself, and that is something I will never forget and will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Sean Burns, football, Class of 2007
“Looking back on it, you can tell that he wasn’t just teaching you about sports – he was teaching you how to be a man and how to deal with life. How to grow up… he was really all about teaching you life lessons.
John had a lot of one-liners. Sometimes you could never really tell if his jokes were serious or not, and then he’d look back and give you a little smile to let you know it was all good.”
Nick Terhaar, football, Class of 2009
“(John) was like a second father figure to me – I spent kindergarten through fifth grade with him at Maplemere Elementary School, so he was my gym teacher before he was my coach. I think I was the only one who he kept tying shoes for until I hit the fourth grade. Once he coached me, we wouldn’t always talk about the game. It was more about life, character and making sure you were a good person and doing the right thing. I’ve carried that with me for the last ten years… the state championship that we won doesn’t mean as much as he did to us. You really don’t think about the games you’ve won – even though we won every one of them back then – you think about what he taught us about the priorities in life, and that’s all because of him.
I can remember our state championship game in 2008 very well. We were all nervous as hell, but I think he was more nervous than anyone because it was the first time he had gotten that far in his long career. I caught John in the back of the locker room after he had given us a speech and acting like he was the toughest guy out there drinking chocolate milk to settle his stomach because he was so stressed out and he didn’t know what to do. He was a god to us, but at the end of the day he was human and normal just like us. It was nice to know that we weren’t alone and that he was giving us the courage to go out there on that field. He was a huge role model for me and pretty much made me who I am today.”
Steve Phillips, football, Class of 2009 and current varsity assistant coach
“(John) was really a man of honor. He always kept you accountable and he set the bar really high. There was always a high standard – he demanded perfection out of yourself and out of the people around you. He always found a way to get the best out of you.
After we beat Aquinas in the Far West Regionals to go to our first state championship game – they were the top-ranked school in the state a few years in a row and were the reigning state champion at the time – we got back on the bus and we’re sitting there until he comes on and he just let out this huge scream of ‘Yeah!” and raised his arms up. Seeing him that excited really stands out in my mind.”
Rob Jurgens, football, Class of 2003
“When I finished playing college football, John asked me if I wanted to come back and help out. I wanted to still be a part of the game I love, so of course I said yes. After ten years of coaching with John, I learned more about life than I ever thought I would. One of the things that stands out to me the most was that we had a kid on our team who was always getting in trouble and doing the wrong things. I said ‘John, why don’t we collect his stuff and tell him to come back next year?’ Right away, John said ‘Robbie, if we did that we wouldn’t be helping the kid. We’re educators and we’re here to help these kids learn.’ He wasn’t willing to throw anyone under the bus. He always wanted to help every athlete, no matter if you were a star or on the bench.”
Casey Kacz, football, Class of 2009
“I had the privilege of growing up just down the street from John, and from time to time I would go by the house and see him outside working without a shirt on. Honestly I thought that was a little weird, but then you realize that teachers are just like regular people. One day in practice of my junior year, I walked up to him and I said ‘Coach, I saw you yesterday shirtless working outside,’ and his goal must have been to make me as uncomfortable as possible, because his response was, ‘Geez, did you like what you saw?’ You could say he achieved his goal.
He was seldom wrong about anything. There was one time he was wrong though – I completed a pass in practice once for a touchdown and he yelled at me. He said, ‘Why did you throw the ball there? It was Cover Three!’ I said, ‘Coach they switched to man-to-man and I wanted to take a shot deep.’ He goes, ‘Son, you need to learn the rules. Rule number one: the coach is always right. Rule number two: refer to rule number one.’
“He wasn’t a guy who was constantly smiling, but he made it that much more special when he did, because you earned it. It felt amazing to see his face light up. We were playing a game at Kenmore East, and one of the guys found a stereo that someone had left in his locker. He started playing ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain and the room went crazy. Guys were jumping around, dancing and having a good time and then the door opened and Coach walked in and everyone sat down and shut up – just terrified. But he cracked a little smile and we all just lost it and went crazy. That gave us confidence that we were good to go.”
US Army Maj. Gen. Brian Mennes, lacrosse, Class of 1984
“When I was 17, I had the opportunity to go to either West Point or Princeton. When I visited West Point, I was attracted to the people there because they reminded me of you – people that John would want on his team so I decided to go there.
On September 11th, I was 34 years old. I was on a C-17 plane flying from England to Bosnia and over the radio I heard about the planes hitting the towers. I learned, at 34, that John had a bigger lesson of patriotism and honor. A person that demonstrated loyalty to people and institutions. Understood that we had duties to each other. That we need to be selfless.
As I was leading people during very difficult situations, I always tried to serve honorably. That my people would be directed to do things that were honorable, that I could protect the people that I was operating around, primarily because of lessons John taught us.”
Mike Faulks, football, Class of 1977 and longtime assistant to Faller
“I come over here and workout at about 4:30 in the morning. And I’ll tell you, the last two weeks, it had been really hard to pull into this parking lot and see this light shine on the field.
As you leave tonight, just look at that light. That’s him shining bright on us. And it’s been that way for the last two weeks.”
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