Football season is in full swing. There are games on TV every weekend, and here in Fulton, when the Red Raiders are playing at home, the high school’s athletic field bleachers are full. Football has long been an important sport in Fulton, and our team has had some influential coaches to lead them. One was Roger Neilson.
When Roger came to teach and coach in Fulton, in 1966, he already had a passion for football. It began when he was a standout player at his Penn Yann, New York high school and the East Stroudsburg Teacher’s College. A stint in the Army put his devotion to football on hold, but by 1957, Roger was Coach Neilson for Pulaski’s Blue Devils. While teaching and coaching there, he earned his master’s degree in education administration at SU.
In 1961, Roger left Pulaski to teach and coach in the state of Virginia, first at the College of William and Mary, and then at Hargrave Military Academy. But by 1966, he was back in Central New York: Fulton had recruited Coach Neilson.
Joining Roger in his new hometown were his wife, Nancy, and their two boys, Tom and Jim. Recently, I talked with the two Neilson boys about their father. What they shared about Roger as a coach they’d learned firsthand, as the brothers spent several years as water boys for Fulton’s football team. While putting out water for practices and setting up dummies for tackling, they got to watch their father in action.
“Dad was a huge student of the game,” Jim remembered. “He studied innovative techniques and tried them out with his teams. One strategy he had was the ‘no-huddle offense.’ Nowadays it’s common, but not back then. He’d call plays at the line, using language the other team wouldn’t understand. Our guys would go to the line with this code and the other team wasn’t prepared.”
My brother, Ed Farfaglia, was quarterback for Fulton in 1970 and he recalled Coach Neilson’s code: “We called those ‘audible plays.’ If coach called the color red, that meant the play would go to the right; blue meant to the left. Numbers would mean which player—the fullback, etc.—would carry out the play.”
Coach Neilson wasn’t just teaching youth football strategies; they also learned appropriate responses to life’s challenges, as his son Tom recalled: “One time, the team was getting ready for a big game and the players weren’t practicing hard. The day before the game they were goofing off, and Dad said, ‘I’m going home. See you tomorrow. I hope you put more effort into the game.’ This impacted the team, and the boys stayed on the field, practicing another two hours without their coach. And they won the game.”
Because of those character-building lessons, Tom said his Dad’s teams admired their coach. “After he’d retired, I heard that a Fulton player said Dad changed his life and had put him on a different path.”
Former Fulton football player Vondell Smith told me this story about Coach Neilson’s inspirational leadership: “The Raiders used to have a Father’s Day game. All the players’ dads would put on their sons’ jerseys, sit in a certain section of the bleachers, and get called out on the field to be recognized. When I was a senior, my dad couldn’t make it to the special day and I was feeling pretty sad. When I got to the game, Coach Neilson asked if my father was coming. I said no and he said, ‘Well, I’m your dad today.’”
Roger’s influence also was felt by the team’s cheerleaders, including Beth Knight: “I remember Coach Neilson as very kind, polite and sincere. On bus rides back to school after away games, Coach asked if everyone, including us cheerleaders, were all set. He wanted to make sure no one would be left at school.”
How players, cheerleaders and fans felt about Roger even made it into the 1969 Fulton yearbook, when student Bill “Chili” Runeari memorialized him with a poem entitled “Coach Neilson Walks on Water.” Here are a few stanzas of the 32-line poem, which focused on a game against Fulton’s rival, The Oswego Buccaneers:
“The Syracuse papers may call us scrappy,
but they’ll agree we’re really snappy;
and the Buccaneers sure won’t be happy
when Coach Neilson walks on water.
The Buccaneer coach is really sick,
cause the Raiders are really pourin’ it on thick;
another score by Tricky Vic
when Coach Neilson walks on water…”
Even after Roger retired from coaching in the early 1970s, his interest in the Fulton team remained strong. “On game day,” his son Jim said, “he’d be in the booth with headphones on, communicating with the coaches on the field.”
After ending his teaching career in 1986, Roger and Nancy moved to Seven Lakes, North Carolina. There he got to spend time enjoying his other passion, golf. “Dad had a long retirement living near Pinehearst, the unofficial golf capital of the United States,” Jim said. “He played three or four times a week and ended up with three holes-in-one.”
But football was always number one to Roger. Eventually the Neilsons moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where Jim lives, and father and son spent many afternoons watching games. “We took in all the Clemson games together. During the 2012 season, Clemsom was undefeated. Dad’s health was failing and we ended up watching them play while he was in the hospital. During one game, he fell asleep while Clemsom was losing. When Dad woke up, he asked ‘How did they do?’ ‘They won,’ I told him. Dad fell back asleep and he died the next day. His last words were wondering if his team won or lost.”
As we look back on one of Fulton school’s most influential role models, let’s remember how coaches like Roger Neilson taught young people in Fulton a lot about life through his love of football.