Photo by Heather Middleton
By Doug Gorman
Tony Lotti has worn many hats in his professional career.
Real estate agent, coach, teacher, and now two-time author.
What the Woodland assistant head football coach might do best is inspire people.
That's certainly what he hoped to accomplish by authoring a "Break in the Rain" (A Boy, His coach and a Special Wish)
"A Break in the Rain" (A Boy, His coach and a special wish), Lotti's second book, should score a touchdown with its readers through its inspirational story.
Although a work of fiction, "A Break in the Rain" is based on a flag football league that he created while he was still at Union Grove High School so children with learning disabilities could experience the joys of being part of a high school football team or cheerleading squad.
The novel takes readers on an emotional journey with Mikey Carmello, a boy with Down's Syndrome and a manager for a high school football team, who's only dream is to score a touchdown for his squad.
Thanks to the compassion of the high school football coach, the ground work is laid for the formation of the flag football league especially for players with special needs. When Mikey's father dies in a car accident, the coach steps up and tries to fill the gap. As the story progress, the two form a special bond, and hopefully the readers learns a lesson about jumping to conclusions and labeling people.
The story is loosely based on Lotti's own experiences through his development of the Faith, Hope and Love Football League, a non-profit flag football organization that helps children with special needs enjoy their own experiences playing high school football and cheerleading.
For Lotti, who punted at Tennessee Wesleyan and had a tryout with the New England Patriots, football teaches many life lessons. It's something he tries to convey each week in the fall as he helps prepare the Wolfpack for another game.
But thanks to the FHL Flag Football league nobody has to be left out of the high school football experience.
It's own motto, "Because we can" has helped the league grow each and every year.
"It was amazing how many people told me you can't do this with these kids," he said. "I wanted to show everyone you can."
The Special Olympics has even taking a page from Lotti and added flag football to its vast sports menu.
The idea to form the league started in 2002 as the Union Grove varsity football team was walking off the field after upsetting Washington Wilkes in the playoffs.
"We had just won a big game, and one of the kids who was a manager on the team and took classes in special education, looked at me and said 'I wish I could play," Lotti remembers.
Lotti admits he didn't pay too much attention to the young man's statement at first. Then he couldn't get it out of his mind.
"It just kept gnawing at me," he said. "I started researching to see if there were any type of football programs for people with disabilities, and I didn't find anything. The one thing I didn't want this to do was have a label on this league
Lotti had just got a flag football team at the school started when was hit with a personal tragedy as one of his former players at Union Grove Eddie Gadson died in 2005 at the age of 20.
After high school, Gadson went on to play college football at Charleston Southern. Although Gadson started his college career as a walk-on, he earned All-Big South honors at wide receiver during the 2004 season.
"When Eddie died, I have to be honest with you, I almost thought about quitting coaching because I didn't think I could detach myself from the kids. I felt like my own son had passed..
It was the players in the FHL football league that helped lift Lotti's spirits and get him through one of the lowest moments in his life. It also made him realize God had directed him out of the business world into the classroom.
"There are so many people out there that think football coaches are in their own little world, that football is the only thing that means any thing. When Eddie died, it was the kids on this team stepped up and got me through it.
As the league developed, Lotti had one thing in mind.
"I wanted them to get the full benefit of playing football," he said. "Game jerseys were important, I wanted them to play in the fall because high school football is played in the fall. I wanted them to ride a bus, and play under the lights.
Slowly all those goals happened.
Although there was no money in the budget for the FHL team to take a bus, a Union Grove driver donated her time to chauffeur the team to its first game.
"She let me know, this was on her," he said.
It was on that bus trip that Lotti was reminded that to these young players. It wasn't just about football.
"One student was bouncing up and down and so happy," Lotti said. "The young man looked at me and said my dad is going to be so proud of me."
The football coach in Lotti thought he was talking about being part of a team.
Lotti was moved to tears when the student told him it will be the first time his dad would see him riding a regular school bus.
"I didn't realize what a big deal that was," he said. "That little detail meant the world to this little boy. It had nothing to do with football. It was about something we take for granted."
The coach tried to create a game-day type experience by letting the players on the FHL team wear their game jerseys to school on Friday.
Working with these students also changed his career path. Lotti spent more than a decade working as community coach, but had no thoughts about become a teacher.
"I had no qualifications working with children with disabilities, "he said.
Through my experience working with these kids on the football field, some people thought maybe I needed to do the teaching. "I prayed so hard, and when the real estate market crashed, as the saying goes, God closed one window, but opened another."
Lotti tried to ignore all those signs that at first pointed him to the classroom until finally he realized maybe these same kids he helped turn into football players, he could help in the classroom.
So at 40, Lotti went back to school. Since his undergraduate degree wasn't in education, he spent two years getting certified so he could teach. At the same time he was getting his masters degree in categorical special education.
It took a balancing act for Lotti. The veteran coach had just joined Woodland football coach Scott Schmitt's staff in time for the Wolf Pack's first season, he was going to school and he was also a father and husband.
Despite all the demands that were placed on him, he has no regrets.
"I am teaching because of what I learned from these kids on the football field," he said.
The Faith, Hope and Love flag football league has exploded with teams now located at Union Grove, Woodland, Eagle's Landing and Rockdale. Lotti has been to Pennsylvania to help two schools launch its FHL flag football team.
Lotti flew up to Pennsylvania to help referee the first FHL football game.
"Here I am almost five years later, I went back to school got my teaching career because of the lessons those kids taught me. One of the things I wanted to fight for them was to do away the typical labels that are associated with children of disabilities. I heard so many times when I went to different places when I was trying to get this league started you can't to that with these kids."
Even though it was a flag football league, many thought the players would get hurt.
"My argument was you can get hurt walking the hallways," he said. "Part of life's lessons is you fall down, you get back up."
Lotti plan was put to the test in the fist game when one of the players missed the ball and was hit in the face. Despite a bloody nose, the young man bounced back up and continued to play.
More than five years later, the league is going strong.
However, Lotti has one wish.
"I want to see every school in the country get a flag football program like this," he said.
" A Break in the Rain" is available in both paper and hardback covers at almost all bookstores. It can also be purchased at Amazon's Kindle.