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Another emotional Rudy story

November 07, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

Poor Rudy Lugo.

For nearly 40 years he coached on a football team that never sent a player to the NFL, never brought him a national honor, never even gave him a parking space.

For nearly 40 years he worked in an office with bars over the windows, lived in a home where kids trampled the lawn, hung out at a church where he prayed in darkness.

Poor Rudy Lugo.

As the head coach at perennially modest Canoga Park High in a cluttered corner of the San Fernando Valley, he lived a life as regionally invisible as the greasy garages and doughnut shops that surrounded him.

He was on television once. He made the headlines never. He earned a $3,500 stipend for teaching kids to play a sport that most of them would never play again, in a city that would never make any of them famous.

Poor Rudy Lugo.

He died of cancer two weeks ago, and Canoga Park will never be the same.

"It wasn't like the town lost just another person," former player Ricardo Hernandez said. "It was like we lost a member of our family."

At his funeral, mourners spilled out of Our Lady of the Valley Church and huddled on the front lawn watching monitors.

After the service, when the hearse drove Lugo around the Canoga Park High football field for the last time, dozens of players and fans rushed back to salute him.

At the school, students randomly hung signs on hallways and doorways, teenage writings filled with honor and angst.

"Rudy was much more than a coach," one read. "He was a man who dedicated his life to us kids."

In the downtown streets of this 70,000-person suburb, folks stepped out of thrift shops and bakeries to remember him.

"Best coach and teacher ever," said Felisha Ibarra, who works at a wireless store adjacent to a sidewalk plaque dedicated to Lugo. "It's like everybody around here has been affected by him in some way."

For the two weeks since his death, "Mr. Canoga's" booming voice has not been silenced, but replaced by those who speak in his honor.

Listen to the sobbing middle-aged construction worker who, while spending one football season in a juvenile detention center, received an inspirational letter from Lugo that he still holds today.

"We knew our father touched a lot of people," said his daughter Melissa. "But to actually see all this . . . we had no idea."

Listen to the former player whose struggling family always managed to scrape together a last-second Thanksgiving dinner.

"Years later, my mother finally admitted to me that Coach Lugo gave us those dinners," Hernandez said. "When I say that many of us lost a family member, I meant that many of us lost another father."

Tonight, when the Canoga Park Hunters host Grant High, those voices will join together in unison when dozens of Lugo's former players -- Lugo's Legends, they are called -- will march on to a field that will be named in his honor.

Extra bleachers have been ordered. Boxes of tissues are being purchased. The coach who spent his life in Southland anonymity will be remembered by what is expected to be the largest crowd in Canoga Park High history.

Poor Rudy Lugo.

The richest man in town.

He never left

Who knew this was still possible?

Who knew a person could still change the landscape of this great sprawling city without ever leaving his neighborhood? Who knew that one could touch so many with such a humble reach?

Shortly before his death at age 60 after a two-year battle with lung cancer -- he never smoked -- Rudy Lugo learned of the plans to honor him. Somehow he knew he would never be alive to attend, so he called his son to his bedside.

"Who would have thought that when I first stepped on that field as an assistant coach in 1969, they would one day name it after me?" he told his son Christopher. "How does this happen?"

It happens with consistency.

From the time he enrolled as Canoga Park High as a spunky little lineman, through his 17 years as an assistant coach and 21 years as a head coach, Lugo was always there.

Coach, teacher, parent, friend, from his first Spanish class at 8 a.m. until his last adult English class at 10 p.m.

"He only went three places in his life," Christopher said. "School, home and church."

He wore coaching shorts, a collared coaching shirt, a Canoga cap tugged low on his shock of black hair, a whistle and keys forever around his neck, a fixture as solid and unwavering as those hills to the north.

"You always knew where to find him," said Lori Thomas, the school's athletic director who was once his student. "And you always knew he would listen."

It also happens with integrity.

Lugo never once recruited an athlete from a different school, even as many of his town's great athletes were being wooed away from his program by unscrupulous opponents.

"He always said he would play with the players God gave him," said Ivan Moreno, the school's current coach.

He also never went to bed without phoning and apologizing to any player he had earlier scolded on the football field.

Finally, it happens with strength.

Lugo did not need a spotlight to validate him, or a job offer to complete him, or even a raise to energize him. He was strong enough to know that helping the weakest among us -- our children -- was enough.

Less than two years before his death, he lost his wife to pneumonia, he lost his father to a stroke, he lost his hair to chemotherapy, he eventually lost his job to the illness, yet he still welcomed current and former students to his modest house for help and advice.

That house, incidentally, underwent an exterior makeover by those former students while Lugo was sick, a two-week volunteer effort filled with fresh paint and new grass and affection.

"I have been blessed to be so loved," Rudy Lugo said shortly before his death, the richest man in town.


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