Every summer the NFL Foundation and USA Football Youth Summit choose 50 high school coaches of the year, one to represent each state, and they meet to talk about best practices for young players. The 2013 Louisiana coach of the year is Dominic Saltaformaggio, of the East Jefferson Warriors. He’s been with the team for five seasons, but has yet to win a state championship.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson joined the Warriors in pre-season practice to find out why a man waiting for a trophy is still number one.
It’s 11 a.m. on the first full day of pre-season practice at East Jefferson High School. Rueben Rutierrez, right guard, heads to the locker room for his first break after three hours on the field — helmet in hand, Gatorade squirt bottle against his forehead.
"Today was the first real august day and the first day we got on the field," Rutierrez says. How does he feel? "Hot. Very hot."
But it’s worth it, he says, because he gets to work with head coach Dominic Saltaformaggio, known as Coach Salt. Coach is fresh off the USA Football Youth Summit; only the coaches voted best in their state get to go.
East Jeff Quarterback Eugene Wells says he is not surprised that Coach Salt received the honor. "He strive for what we strive for: the championship," Wells says. "He works hard for us, and we just gotta deliver for him. He love what he do."
Jill Mahr and Ariel Mills are the team’s athletic trainers, always on site to make sure everyone stays hydrated on the field. Although they’re not players, they also feel connected to the head coach. "He’s kind of like a second father figure, because he likes being close knit with everyone," Mahr says. "He wants it to be a family, not just a team, but in order to be a team you have to be a family."
If family is defined by the amount of time spent with others, the Warriors are Coach Salt’s family. Austin Pochet graduated from EJ last spring and is now an offensive lineman at Southeastern University. He’s back to catch up with his old coach, who he still calls his mentor.
"He sacrifices so much for these players, they just have no idea," Pochet says. "When I left and I really started realizing just how much he gives up — he gives up his family time, he makes sure we’re taken care of — every time I say that, like just now, I just got goosebumps."
And EJ is just as important to Coach Salt as he is to the school. Landing this job is his homecoming story. Coach was the head coach of Chalmette, but when Katrina hit he relocated to Georgia. After five years, he was more than ready to find a way back.
"I love New Orleans," Salt says. "I’m a native New Orleanian — I went to Holy Cross High School. I knew I needed to move home, and I called up Coach Kytle — who’s the principal here who was a friend of mine — and that’s just how I got back here and back to New Orleans, thankfully."
Back when coach was in high school, being on varsity equaled instant celebrity status. But nowadays, numbers in football are falling nationwide.
"It’s a shame that crowds aren’t what they used to be fifteen years ago, but again options — you know, it’s 100 degrees out there and their friends are on the beach or they’re working in the air conditioning at Rouses or something, and I’m asking these kids to practice for five hours... it’s just hard!"
And not as many students want to dedicate time to the team and to passing class. Coach says time on the field is the deciding factor in team success.
"In my $1.25 street car ride opinion, you don’t out-coach anybody in this game anymore, and you really don’t out-athlete anyone in this game anymore, you just outwork people… and if you don’t you’re gonna get beat."
But it’s not just about winning. Coach Salt sees his job as an opportunity to motivate this age group towards higher goals, starting with higher education. Because, honestly, they’re not all going pro.
"0.01 percent of these kids are going make a living at playing football. 0.01 percent! I mean, you think about it, there are 3 million kids that play high school football and there are 300 in the NFL. And as long as were getting them out of high school and graduating high school that’s huge for us."
But it is also about winning. The team has yet to nab a state championship, and Coach wants it. Bad.
"I dream about it," he says. When I’m running I think about what will I do when the day comes to win a state championship. That’s why I love coaching the game, because the kids understand, you know — you can ask them what do they want, and they all point to that index finger because they all want that ring. So we’ll see."
It’s not just his players who appreciate Salt. Coach George Ryan is one of six assistant coaches. He’s been coaching the game for 44 years — nineteen at EJ. He says Salt isn’t like most coaches he’s worked with. "He lets you know how he feels and how he thinks about things; he doesn’t hold a lot back. And I like that, and the kids like that, and we like that about him!"
His bond with players extends beyond the field and beyond their high school years. "I remember once, in a job interview, one of the questions was 'What is the greatest achievement of being a head coach'. Without a doubt: I’ve been the best man in three players' weddings."
So, if all goes well this season, the next time he stands up in a player’s wedding Coach Salt will already have a matching ring with the groom… a state championship ring.