Like so many of Kevin McNamara’s players, Carissima Cutrona came to feel like almost part of the family. She was a star on his soccer team at Williamsville South and came back to be his assistant coach for the girls’ team at South after a terrific career at UB.

Carissima was over at the McNamara house, visiting Kevin and his family when she got the terrible news late last year that Kevin was gravely ill with cancer. She was devastated.

“Mac was like Superman to me,” Cutrona said from Harstad, Norway, where she is playing professionally for the first division club Medkila IL. “I thought he would coach until he was 100 years old. He always said he was going to retire when I graduated high school, but we all knew that wasn’t true.

“From my time in high school, to playing college soccer to coming back to coach with him, it was almost like he didn’t age,” she said, her voice breaking.

McNamara was fit, full of life and energy and optimism, a man who could walk into a room and lighten the mood with his impressions and jokes. Peter Sugg, who coached the boys’ soccer team at Will South and was a dear friend of Kevin’s, also thought of him as indestructible.

“He was 71 years old,” said Sugg, who coached the South boys from 1989-2015. “He was healthy. He looked great. He took care of himself. I guess cancer, unfortunately, doesn’t care about those things sometimes.”

Cancer is sinister and cruel. It doesn’t discriminate. Last Sunday, McNamara passed away after a battle with neuroendocrine small cell carcinoma. He was 71. He leaves behind a wife, Sherri, daughters Erin and Beth (who both played soccer for him), a granddaughter, Imogen Rae, and a legion of friends, former players and coaching colleagues who saw him as a shining light in the local soccer community.

McNamara coached girls’ soccer at Williamsville South for 27 years. His teams won four sectional championships and made a trip to a state Final Four. He developed countless star players, including Cutrona and Jamie Boyar. But as any youth coach will tell you, it’s not the wins that define coaches, but the manner in which they touch the lives of young people.

In that sense, he truly was a Superman. McNamara, who taught physical education at Christian Central High for 33 years, was a deeply religious soul, a warrior for Christ. He was also a friend, family man and father figure, a mentor and role model whose heart was in the right place.

“Yes, and the kids at South absolutely adored him,” said Chris Durr, who coached the girls’ soccer team at Williamsville East from ’95 until the school board removed him without explanation a year ago. Durr’s career directly paralleled Kevin’s, and they became close friends and rivals.

“Sometimes, those rivalries can get a little out of control,” Durr said, “and they never did with him and me. I felt I had perspective, but he always had perspective. He was gracious to my players when they got awards. He was always pumping up players on other teams, regardless of who they played for. It was about their soccer ability and what kind of kid they were.”

Durr, who is now an assistant girls’ soccer coach at Clarence, said he and Kevin had a ritual when things got a little emotionally intense during a match.

“One of us would say, ‘Grace, grace,’” Durr said. “If we were saying something that might have been a little off color, we’d say, ‘Don’t forget grace.’ It was something we said back and forth as a joke. He was certainly a very religious man and he’s in a better place.

“He’s going to be missed in more ways than just soccer, that’s for sure.”

JoAnna Fildes, the head girls’ coach at Amherst High, has been coaching soccer for 26 years and looked up to McNamara as a role model and mentor. Fildes played at UB for Jean Tassy, a close friend of McNamara’s. She remembers ‘Mac’ coming by to observe practices.

“He’d bring his girls with him to watch practices,” Fildes said, “and that’s how I first met Mac. We would work UB’s soccer camps together. He’s Mac. He’s just, he’s Mac. A great guy and … Mac. People joke that he could be my dad.

“He was that mentor. He left a legacy behind. He taught kids all about life, and that’s what you want. I hope I touch as many kids’ lives as he did.”

Clara Richards was one of the many lives he touched in a significant way. Richards, who graduated from South last year, was a star and team leader. She has fond memories of the day that Kevin gave her the arm band, signifying her role as a captain.

Coach Mac at a Williamsville South ceremony with Clara Richards and Carissima Cutrona (Courtesy of Clara Richards)

“He didn’t just expect me to lead, he taught me how to lead,” Richards said from San Antonio, where she’s a freshman on the women’s team at Trinity University. “That was a major part of me wanting to continue to play.

“The team culture that he created is the reason I set my standards so high for my collegiate team. The (South) team really felt like a family and I know every single one of those girls, if I texted them, they would have my back and they’d be there for me.”

Cutrona was a three-year captain and two-time All-American at South, where she was part of two sectional champs. She twice was named to the all-MAC first team at UB, where her career was cut short by a knee injury. She played the last two years for FC Buffalo before signing in Norway.

“Obviously, through all of the fun times of South soccer, playing for him, that was a highlight of my soccer career,” Cutrona said. “I have just the best memories of Coach Mac and the environment that he and his assistant, Coach (Tony) Pariso, created for the team.

“Mac was just the best. It’s so hard for me to put into words, everything that he’s meant to me. I met him when I was in the eighth grade playing on varsity. From day one, he looked out for me and supported me and led me in such an incredible way as a coach.

“Mac always wanted to win, of course,” Cutrona added, “but he was so much more than a soccer coach. He made it a really competitive environment, but also a fun environment where we were comfortable to be ourselves. Sometimes, the most successful teams are the ones that enjoy being around each other on and off the field. That’s the type of environment Coach Mac created.”

Cutrona’s injury temporarily set back her plans to go pro, but she considers it a blessing that it allowed her to coach for three years with McNamara.

“I feel so lucky I was able to join him for his last three years of coaching at South,” she said. “I’m really lucky that I have those memories to keep with me.”

Mac’s illness came as a shock to hear, as it did to most people. Sugg said his friend didn’t want to alarm his players during the 2021 season. He kept it mainly to himself, though Richards said the seniors began to suspect when McNamara missed practice for all those doctor’s appointments. She didn’t find out he was sick until late July.

“That was a big shock for us,” Richards said. “He always called us battle warriors. That was his term for when we played on the field. We never knew he was fighting his own battle the entire time.”

Sugg said McNamara knew the prognosis was grave, but his friend wanted to put off telling people as long as he could. Until things took a turn for the worst, McNamara was holding out hope that he could coach one more season this year at Will South.

It was sad to see cancer take a person so vital, so full of life and belief. Pariso, who became friends with McNamara in the eighth grade at Cleveland Hill, said for Mac it was always his religion first, family second, and Will South soccer third.

“Besides his soccer knowledge, his communication with his players was awesome,” said Pariso, who had no soccer experience when McNamara brought him to the program 14 years ago. “When we were at halftime, he would come up with maybe three points of emphasis for the second half. He’d say, ‘Tony, write them down.’ Then he’d let the players talk, too.

“He was very enthusiastic. I would get so inspired, I felt like knocking down a wall. He was very good at getting people motivated. I’m just thankful I had the opportunity to coach with him.”

Carissima Cutrona poses with Coach Mac after an FC Buffalo game. (Courtesy of Carissima Cutrona)

Along with God, family and soccer, of course, Mac had deeps passions for golf and his beloved Boston Red Sox.

“He loved the Sox,” Sugg said. “He and a couple of his friends started traveling around every summer to different baseball stadiums. He had almost gotten to the finish line as far as being at all the stadiums. I think one of the last games he saw at Fenway, his oldest daughter, who’s a doctor in Boston, got him seats above the Monster in Fenway.

“He just recently had gotten into golf, too,” Sugg said. “He played a lot of golf at Arrowhead, they he started playing at Terry Hills. He called it his home course. He was out at Terry Hills at least once a week. He loved it.

“He was a funny guy, too. We were always laughing about something. He was a great guy to be around. I don’t know if I can put it any better. Since he retired from his teaching, he would pop up to South regularly. We would sit in my office and talk. I’m going to miss those visits. I’m going to miss our occasional going out to dinner. He’s going to be missed by so many people.”

McNamara loved his hats, too. Sugg said Mac’s daughter, Beth, came by last Friday for South’s game against Rochester Mercy. She came with a bunch of her dad’s Will South hats and presented one to each of the girls on the team.

“It was the coolest thing,” said Sugg, who still teaches at the school. “Watching the girls, I think they were blown away by that gesture.”

Mac passed away on Sunday night. The Williamsville South girls played Sweet Home on Wednesday, the first day of Mac’s wake, and won, 12-1. On Thursday, they went as a team to the wake with the coaches. They will play their first home game since his death on Friday night, the day of his funeral, when they host Amherst — Fildes’ team.

Fildes spoke with Pariso earlier this week and said she would understand if he didn’t want to play that night. They both agreed that Mac would have wanted the girls, his battle warriors, to play.

“I’m glad it’s us,” Fildes said. “I’m glad it’s me. We’ve always had a healthy, competitive game. It always goes either way and he makes it fun, even though it’s a great competition. It’s just sad. It’ll be tough for me, but our team said, ‘We got it, Coach.’

“Mac had a passion for soccer and teaching and passing the love of the game on to anyone and everyone,” she said. “He would want you to battle through this. He would want to. He’ll be watching it, don’t worry.”

Sports

***

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.