Knights honor former coach, ‘mother,’ Mary DeCesare


Ivan Rosario knew Mary DeCesare was doing things her way yet again. This past Saturday was a rainy, gloomy day for most of the afternoon. But then at around 4 p.m. — sunshine. 

The rain cleared out, and although later in the day it turned cloudy, not a drop of rain fell.

For Rosario, a former football player at John F. Kennedy High School, this was DeCesare’s work. It reminded him of what she told him once before a game.

“She said, ‘Don’t worry, by game time, I control the weather machine,’” Rosario said. “The sun would always come out when we were ready to play.”

And on Saturday, Rosario needed DeCesare to control the weather machine once again as dozens of former JFK football players, friends and family gathered at the school’s football field to honor DeCesare, a beloved jack of all trades who served as an assistant coach, math teacher and college adviser, and who died April 29.

Among the many guests was former JFK Knights football coach Jerry Horowitz, who hired DeCesare in 1981.

“There were four principles that she based her philosophy on,” Horowitz said. “The ability to humble yourself to authority, to communicate, set a standard of excellence, and give back. Just seeing the turnout and these kids that keep coming back … to be here because they want to give back.”

When Horowitz took the JFK job, he had trouble finding assistant coaches. It was thanks to his wife that JFK’s football program was blessed with the presence of DeCesare. His wife recommended he hire a woman as an assistant coach, so Horowitz sent a football player into math tutoring with DeCesare. After the player passed his test, Horowitz thought, “Why not offer DeCesare a job?”

That decision would change not only his life, but the lives of hundreds of Knights, many of whom were present Saturday. 

Players, friends and former colleagues convened at the spot in the parking lot where DeCesare always parked her car. There, they shared their favorite memories of her, followed by unveiling a small monument and a red pole with a sign that said “Mary’s Way,” a phrase made famous by those who were close to DeCesare and knew she did things her way. The right way.

“It just shows the legacy that she left behind and the importance of what she did,” Rosario said about the turnout at the event.

DeCesare’s legacy is unforgettable to the Knights, many of whom called her their second mother. DeCesare served, in a sense, as a team mom, doing everything ranging from helping with homework, providing food and clean uniforms, recording games, giving the players advice and pep talks in the locker room — and when she needed to, disciplining the kids.

“She helped maintain a standard of excellence,” Horowitz said. “She taught these kids how important it was to be charitable and to give back.”

For as much as she did with the football team, DeCesare also worked tirelessly as an adviser, helping thousands of kids continue their future past high school.

“If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve probably never went to college,” Robert Kelly, a former player who graduated in 1993 said.

So when DeCesare passed away, the news was heartbreaking.

“It was a surprise,” Rosario said. “She died in her sleep, peacefully, the way anyone would want to. But it was shocking. There was nothing wrong with her. The only thing I can think of is that God wanted her.”

Now it is up to Rosario and the former Knights to keep DeCesare’s legacy alive. Rosario has wasted no time in doing that. In 2016, he and a few former JFK players created the Knights Youth Football League, a non-profit organization to promote physical activity for inner city kids.

Following DeCesare’s death, Rosario admits he has a renewed sense of energy and commitment to the league. He wants to get things done the right way. Mary’s way.

“Her legacy is going to live on through this league,” Rosario said. “We’re going to make sure that we support and we take care of our inner city youth, because at one point, we were the inner city youth, and she was here and she took care of us.”