Soon enough, Sam Feldman’s time at Northeast High School will come to an end.
Having made his decision to retire at the end of the school year, Feldman, who has been at Northeast since 1997 and the boys soccer and baseball coach since the 2002-03 seasons, is prepared to walk away after decades of a fulfilling career as an educator.
But what will he do with the extra down time?
“This past weekend, I went to see my two granddaughters, ages 2 and 4,” Feldman said on Friday afternoon while his soccer team prepared for the Public League quarterfinals. “We played a lot of Simon Says, Seven Up, Duck-Duck-Goose and Huckle Buckle Beanstalk. My son and my daughter-in-law love watching me be a gym teacher with them. That’s what I do, and who I am.”
While Feldman’s wife has questioned his decision to retire, (“She thinks it’s a mistake, me leaving,” he said. “She doesn’t think I’ll be good on my own.”) he’s at peace with the choice. With his spring baseball team not expected to be a championship contender, Feldman’s last shot at glory may rest with his Viking soccer team, a group that lost just one game all season. George Washington (3-3 tie) and Franklin Towne Charter (3-0 loss) are the only teams Northeast failed to beat this year, and those teams are right there at the top of the standings chasing the same goal.
Feldman, whose lone championship at the school came with the 2007 soccer team, has guided the Vikings to two straight title games, both heartbreaking losses at the hands of Washington and Bartram. He doesn’t want history to repeat itself.
“I don’t want to win it for me,” he said. “I want to win it for them. Last year, losing in the championship to Washington, watching them cry in the locker room. They didn’t want to leave at the end of the night. I can still remember it…”
Feldman’s voice trailed off, his voice cracking with emotion. He is very much a man at the end of his coaching road, and he recognizes that. But even with retirement looming, he knows he’ll always be a part of the Northeast family, simply because he won’t be able to stay away.
“I can’t just walk away,” he said. “Ninety percent of the guys from my championship team are my friends on Facebook. I try to keep up the best I can, seeing them get married and have kids. It’s good stuff.”
And if Feldman wants to win one final championship for his players, then the feeling is certainly mutual.
“It’s his last year, and he deserves it,” senior captain Chris Black said. “We brought him there two years in a row, and now it’s our last shot. We want to finish it for him.”
“We want to do this for him,” added junior captain George Chavez. “In the championship losses, he felt the pain in our eyes. Those tears mean a lot to him. We want the tears, but happy ones this time. He’s not selfish. He wants this for us.”
Feldman is especially fond of this particular group, one that has never griped about going to work each and every day.
“Unlike some groups in the past, they’re very bright and fun to be around,” he said with a deep sigh in his voice. “They love to work. They get along. It makes my job more enjoyable to see that. Winning a championship, if that could make all the difference in the world to even one of them, it’d be worth it.”
Over the course of a long, reflective conversation, Feldman discussed some of his fondest soccer memories as a player and a coach. He told the story of winning a high school state championship in 1971 and how it has stuck with him to this day, more than 40 years later.
“The reality is, that one day got me here today in a lot of respects,” he said. “I want that for these guys.”
The road certainly won’t be easy. Northeast finished with a 9-1-1 record, the same as Washington and Towne. By way of a tie-breaking coin flip, Northeast has to travel to Simon Gratz High School for the quarterfinals, while Washington and Towne play their first games at Northeast as the top two seeds. A win by both Northeast and Washington in the quarters would set up a rematch of their Oct. 10 game; in that contest, the Vikings spotted the Eagles an early 3-0 lead before frantically fighting back for a 3-3 tie, highlighted by two goals from Black. (Editor’s note: Northeast advanced to the Public League semifinals on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win over Samuel Fels.)
Feldman knows anything short of a championship will be a disappointment to him and his players; that said, the unselfish coach has enjoyed the precious remaining moments with his team.
“I just had my fortieth high school reunion, and forty-eight of the people I graduated with are dead,” he said. “You see some are toothless and unable to afford dental care, some got AIDS, some are all-world and very successful businesspeople. You just don’t know…”
Feldman is a man happy with where his road has led. He hopes the road ends with three more victories, as do his players who have learned so much from their caring coach.
“He’s done a lot for us,” said team leading scorer Andy Jean-Pierre. “It’s my first year on the team, but since day one he’s pushed us and made us work hard to get where we are today. He always makes us laugh. Winning and having fun are what he’s all about.”
“We have our ups and downs like anyone else,” Chavez added. “He’s been there with us through it all. That’s what makes us a team. We go through it all together.”
Black took it one step further.
“His strongest point has always been to mold us into a family,” he said. “That’s all he cares about. We’re one team … one family. I’d give anything to win this for him. And I know he would, too.” ••