In Memory of Coach Nick Modugno
Updated: Jun 18
To honor of the best tennis coach I ever had.
Last week the tiny hamlet of Valhalla, N.Y., lost a bright light in its community: the venerable Nicholas Modugno.
Nick Modugno was a former physical education teacher and coach at Valhalla High School, with a career spanning over 40 years in the district, and whose tenure ended when he was well over the age of 80. He taught and coached thousands of students across multiple generations and left a lasting impression on all he met.
Nick was known affectionately as “Coach D,” or just “D!” if you were running late and pleading to get out of laps. It was no coincidence that everyone in school, even non-student athletes and staff alike, called him “coach.” Coach D’s outlook and attitude permeated the starting line, the service line, and the pitcher’s mound, and served as an example for the greatest game ever played: life.
First and foremost, Coach D was a man of devout faith, and could regularly be found ushering mass on the weekends at his parish of St. John’s Church in White Plains. Scribbled on the top of any correspondence that Coach D passed on to his athletes was the phrase, “Go for the gold, but make yourself third.” Coach D would often explain that this meant you should do the best you can, but make sure you put your God first, your friends and family second, and yourself third.
Coach D was a role model for hard work. He was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. Even in his 80’s, Coach D was on the other side of the net, running drills and feeding balls to the players. Valhalla’s morning announcements every so often would include scores from the Viking's latest sporting endeavors. Unless it was one of Coach D’s teams, in which case you could always count on a full write-up of the latest track meet or tennis match. Coach D's recaps would casually use phrases like, “valiant effort,” when describing the tennis team's latest loss. He always helped people shine, even in failure.
For Coach D, sport wasn’t about the outcome. It was about the process. He expected his athletes to give 100 percent, day in and day out.
Did you do your laps and your stretches?
Did you contribute to the team?
Were you on time?
Did you play to the best of your ability?
If the answer to any of those questions was “no,” Coach D had no problem letting you know that you were not meeting expectations. Coach D never allowed an athlete to rest on their laurels and never favored. He let those that did the work and earned their positions, play. In turn, he showed Vikings the importance of continuous hard work, and that anything worth having takes time, energy, and investment.
Besides being a devoted coach, Coach D was just a joy to be around. His optimism never failed, and it was hard to be in poor spirits around him. Coach D would lighten up long practices with any of his many “Coach D-isms.” If you got him riled up, he would usually hit you with a “Holy Toledo!” or a good ole’, “cheese and crackers!”. He could often be heard telling people to, “mind your p’s and q’s,” and when it was a water break, to “wet your whistle.”
Coach D sometimes would try, and successfully hit us with tennis balls if we were especially rambunctious. Coach D was a bard of the baseline, and would often break out into poetry or song. Coach D was generous with both his time and attention for his athletes, and a few times a season would treat teams to meals at the diner, where he would order himself a coffee black and a "naked" burger (bun, no toppings), every time.
When I was in high school, Coach D was already retired for five years. But it was pretty commonplace to see him walking the halls, pen and pad in hand, wearing at minimum one piece of Valhalla sports apparel, and greeting everyone with a smile and emphatic hello. Coach D also served as a substitute teacher and especially shined when he substituted physical education classes. Whatever the sport was, Coach D was in the middle of the action, running up and down the field. After a goal, everyone on the field would fall silent, and turn to Coach D. Coach D would slowly raise one hand up to his eye, and with the other hand make the motion of cranking an old-time camera, mimicking an instant replay. After a few seconds, Coach D would proclaim, “GOAL!”, giving the students a show.
Coach D taught Vikings the importance of respect. No matter creed, color, or age, Coach D was unwavering in the respect he showed for everyone. And in return, Coach D was respected by all; it was the unspoken canon of Valhalla High School.
This past week, social media has been flooded with the heartfelt and amazing messages of the impact Coach D had on people, each another stitch in a full tapestry of a good life lived. Coach D will be missed. He was the best of humanity, wrapped up in a five foot package.
It is heartbreaking that the Valhalla community can't come together during this time of tremendous loss to honor the man who was so central to so much of the good in our little community. And while we cannot come together now, we can honor his legacy through our memories.
Remember Coach. Talk about him, and talk about him often. How he was a good man of strong values, high morals and generosity. And if you find yourself running late for an obligation, take a lap.