Years later, after the two became close friends and colleagues, Mark Spacone came to understand that he never stood a chance against Tom Kacalski. In 2000, the two interviewed with the superintendent for the same job teaching social studies at Lackawanna High School.
Spacone proved that he had all the necessary credentials. He was bright and articulate and energetic. He figured he fared well during his interview, and he was eager to start. Instead, he was passed over after Kacalski answered a simple question from then-superintendent Nellie King.
“Tom,” she said. “Why should I give you this job?”
Kacalski spoke from the heart.
“Look,” he said. “I’m from Lackawanna. I went to Lackawanna. I graduated from Lackawanna, and these are my people.”
It was always about the people with Kacalski, who understood his neighbors in Lackawanna as well as anyone could. For years, he made teaching look easy because he knew the challenges that came with a diverse city, a melting pot with railroad tracks on Ridge Road marking a geographical and racial divide. He was intent on taking everything he learned and paying it forward to all kids.
His family and friends were hurting Friday, a day after the popular former Lackawanna soccer coach died unexpectedly at age 43 from what doctors suspect was a fresh-water bacterial infection. Early theories suggested he contracted the infection last weekend while swimming at Woodlawn Beach, cutting his finger while fishing or cleaning clams.
“He was a great person,” Spacone said. “Why these things happen to good people, you don’t know. He was a great guy. He was a family man. He wasn’t just a professional in coaching, but he made a point to make an impact with kids that he worked with on a personal level. He had a great personality.”
It’s why the district summoned Kacalski to clean up Lackawanna’s troubled soccer program in 2007. Tensions were running high around a team that included Arab-American players in the post 9/11 era, particularly after the Lackawanna Six were accused of training with Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Players already had earned a reputation for cheating on the field and disrespecting officials and coaches when a fight erupted against Akron. The school board suspended the 2007 season, removed the coach and called upon Kacalski to restore order and credibility to the team.
“This guy brought them together,” said Rich Kozak, a Lackawanna native who for years coached youth soccer with Kacalski and was one of his closest friends. “Parents weren’t allowing their kids to play for a white guy. One by one, the kids came around. They saw that he knew what he was doing.”
In the six years after he was hired, Lackawanna won three division titles and twice was named ECIC Sportsmanship Team of the Year. He was a four-time Coach of the Year winner before leaving in 2013 to serve as an assistant coach under Spacone at Daemen College.
“He got ‘it’ from all angles,” Kozak said. “He understood it as a parent. He understood it as a player. He understood it as a teacher. And he understood people and their beliefs and how much that means. And he called it ‘futbol’ because he understood what that meant.”
Kacalski had an incurable addiction to soccer. He told many friends and family over the years that, in another life, he would have been a professional coach. Maybe even he didn’t realize the sport was only a part of what motivated him, only a slice of what made him whole.
See, he didn’t coach soccer.
He coached people.
His death notice will say he had three children, but really he had thousands when all of his students and players are added up. His former students and players are professionals and parents and coaches and mentors. One of the nurses who took care of him at Mercy Hospital was a former student.
His family should take comfort knowing the depth of his influence and the reach of his branches. It’s incredible.
“That’s where my thoughts have been lately,” Spacone said. “You look at the number of players on each team over the years, and he’s impacted certainly a thousand more athletes through the sport of soccer. His impact on the people and the world far outreaches his physical grasp.
“It goes well beyond that because of the lessons he imparted on students in the classroom and all the lessons that he imparted on the athletes on the soccer field. His impact is just exponential.”
Kacalski is survived by his wife, the former Michelle Andzel; two daughters, Melissa and Caitlin, and a son, Josh. Melissa followed her father’s path into teaching. Caitlin is a senior at Canisius College. Josh, 13, is a soccer and hockey player, two passions passed down from his father.
Kacalski spent years devoting his time and energy to coaching other kids, all along knowing the height of his career would be coaching his own in high school.
He recently was hired to coach Frontier’s varsity team. Josh is an up-and-coming eighth-grader who was on the fast track to his father’s team.
It’s no surprise, after putting together practice plans and showing he was qualified, that Kacalski offered to coach the team for free. His master plan called for improving programs for young kids, showing them the game was fun and developing them into good players and better people.
Last weekend was no different than many others. Monday, he was texting his friends. A few hours later, he was in the hospital fighting for his life. A few days later, he was dead. His first clinic as Frontier’s coach would have opened two days from today.
“I lost my wingman,” Kozak said. “You take so much for granted because you think, tomorrow, it’s going to be there. I don’t know. I’ve been going back and forth and trying to be strong. We were like family.”
It’s a great injustice, but Kacalski was the type of person who would turn his own death into a life lesson. He would remind his family that there are certain circumstances people can’t control.
He would reiterate how life isn’t always fair. He would tell them to continue marching forward on the right path.
Lessons he handed down were life’s instructions.
Be a kind person and a selfless teammate. Try your best in the classroom, on the athletic fields and beyond. Be positive. Play by the rules and lead by example. Love your family and be loyal to your friends, for they are the people who will always be there for you. And don’t forget one more thing:
Pay It Forward.
That’s not what Kacalski taught.
That’s how he lived.