Our teachers and coaches are among the most important role models who guide us through childhood and, from time to time, I like to feature one in this column. Today I’m remembering Tom Carroll, a Fulton physical education teacher and coach. Among the many young people who Coach Carroll worked with are three Fultonians and lifelong friends: Doug Blake, Steve Janas and Mike Pollock, who shared their memories of Tom Carroll with me. But before discussing Tom specifically, we talked about those influential adults in general.
“We looked up to all our coaches,” Mike said. “They each brought something to our practices that helped shape the players we became.”
“During our football years our coaches were Roger Neilson, Buck Godici, Floyd Boynton and Tom Carroll,” Steve explained.
“They balanced each other out,” Doug said. “One of the things I remember about Coach Carroll was his sense of humor. He made it fun—and football practice is not fun.”
To find out how Tom Carroll developed his coaching style, I needed to learn about his life before working with Fulton students, and Tom’s son, Tim, shared some details about his father’s younger years. Tom was born in Watertown, but his family moved to Fulton when he was a child and it was during his school years here that he participated in several sports, including football.
Around the time of his high school graduation, Tom and his friends were hearing about the escalating Korean War. They all signed up to serve in the military, with Tom entering the Marine Corps. The GI Bill provided him an education at Ithaca College, where he continued his passion for sports as a member of their football team. Tom then had a long career teaching and coaching, including in Mexico and then in Fulton.
It was as head coach for Mexico’s football team, beginning in 1961, where Tom honed his coaching skills. In his first season, though in previous years they’d struggled to win, Mexico went undefeated in Oswego County. I asked Tim how his father turned the team around so fast.
“Dad brought his training from the Marines to coaching,” Tim explained. “He developed a strong practice schedule and expected the team to follow his rules. I heard a story about a couple of his Mexico team players getting caught smoking. Dad’s punishment was to make them smoke a bunch of cigarettes with a bucket on their head, so they’d get a full exposure to smoke. He’d learned that in the Marines.
“But Dad wasn’t only about hard and fast rules; he was also a peacemaker of sorts. He was able to talk to people, often talking them down when they were angry. When we lived in Mexico, I remember hearing from my bedroom window an upset mother who’d come to confront my father late at night. She thought her son wasn’t getting enough playing time on the football team and was yelling at my dad. He brought her inside, got her a cup of coffee and talked with her to help her better understand the circumstances.”
Tom brought his successful coaching strategies to Fulton in 1967, where he taught physical education and health and became an assistant football coach. “The coaches taught us the elements of the game,” Doug said, “and Coach Carroll knew his X’s and O’s. But he was also easy to talk to. He got his point across without being mean.”
Like many coaches, Tom cared about his players beyond the football field. “When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to Ithaca College and play football,” Steve remembered. “Coach Carroll put in a good word for me at his alma mater.”
Tom’s interest in helping others went beyond school. “Dad had service in his blood,” Tim said, “and he found many ways to serve. He’d struggled with drinking and got help for himself, then took a job with the Employment Assistance Program, where he counseled others who were struggling. He was also a man of faith, which got him through a lot of his trials, and he became very involved with the church.
“Dad made sure we kids went to Mass regularly, including holy days. I remember being on the baseball field in the middle of a game and Dad showed up to take me to Mass. He motioned me to come off the field and, even though my coach was yelling at Dad to keep me in the game, I knew my father wouldn’t budge. But Dad also believed that if you got to church before communion you could leave right after communion—it was about the sacrament to him—so I was back on the field and had only missed a few innings.”
Tom also coached the high school’s golf team, a sport for which he had a lifelong passion. After retiring from teaching in 1973, Carroll became an unofficial ambassador at Fulton’s Battle Island Golf Course, often helping others improve their lives beyond the golf greens. Tom’s friend and coworker, Sonny Allen, shared this story at Carroll’s funeral, in 2009:
“I would visit him at Battle Island where he was the starter. A starter is responsible for determining where and when a person can begin his golf game. Many times someone would be upset with his position in line or scheduled time to go. By the time he left the first tee, Tom would have the person relaxed and friendly.”
When Tom’s health declined, he was visited by many fellow teachers, former students and friends. Among them were Mike, Steve and Doug. “We went together to see him,” Mike said, “and we had some good laughs remembering our football days. But we also knew that Tom was a coach who saw what sports could mean beyond the playing field. He showed us how to be teammates, but he was teaching us more than that. He was teaching us about life.”