Irondequoit boys basketball coach Chris Cardon defines perseverance

Democrat and Chronicle    by Leo Roth    March 24, 2017

Frank and Monica Cardon had grown accustomed to spending a good chunk of the winter in Florida or California doing the snowbird thing.

A little golf, a little sun in retirement.

The only drawback was having to follow the exploits of their favorite high school boys’ basketball team from afar. Son Chris, 58, the oldest of their seven children, has been the head coach at Irondequoit High School for 30 seasons. Among Eagles fans, they are the First Parents in the First Family.

This winter brought a change in plans, though, and perhaps for Irondequoit, a change in fortune.

“It’s funny but I told my dad, ‘You better not go away this year, I’ve got a good feeling about this team,’ " Chris Cardon said. “ ‘We were really good last year, I’ve got a lot of guys back, I’ve got some real good team guys from the JV, I think Frank if you stick around, we’ve got a shot to do pretty well.’ ’’

If by “pretty well’’ Chris meant compiling a record of 25-1, the most wins in school history, winning his 400th career game, a second Section V championship, Irondequoit’s first public school state title in basketball and earning the No. 1-ranking in New York, then yes, his folks are beyond elated that they took his advice and stayed put.

The Cardon clan, woven tight as a tweed cap and numbering about 20, was in Binghamton last weekend to cheer on Chris and his Eagles as they defeated Our Lady of Lourdes, 54-43, to win the state Class A championship.

Injuries, a bit of mid-year complacency, even a devastating windstorm that walloped their community couldn’t blow Irondequoit off course. Next stop, Glens Falls where the Eagles meet powerhouse Albany Academy in the Federation Tournament of Champions semifinals on Saturday.

Having his parents (who have missed just one game) and siblings, Greg, Randy, Michele, Michael, Jennifer and Laurie along for the ride has made things extra special for Chris, who this summer joins his dad (Class of 2000) in the Frontier Field Walk of Fame.

“It’s been a shared family experience and my dad, he just loves it,’’ he said. “He gets really nervous and I’ve got to go, ‘Dad, relax.’ That’s one thing about me, I’ve done it enough that I don’t get nervous especially with this team.’’

Especially with talented, team-minded seniors such as TySean Sizer, Zach Stenglein, Jeremiah Zitz and Alex Goldsberry, sophomore Gerald Drumgoole and an unselfish supporting cast.

Frank Cardon was the long-time sports editor of the former Rochester Times-Union and while he dealt with a lot of coaches, he never drew up any X's and O's. That means he won’t take credit for Chris’ coaching prowess.

Well, not exactly.

“When he won 400 games, I told everybody ‘He couldn’t have done it without Monica and me,’ ’’ said Frank, 81, who shoots quips like Stephen Curry shoots 3-pointers.

Actually, Chris Cardon learned everything he needed for success in life from Mom and Dad, who have 18 grandchildren and will celebrate 60 years of marriage in October. You know, the good stuff: The importance of family, character, hard work, perseverance.

And boy did that perseverance trait come in handy.

There was a point when runner-up finishes, heartbreak and plain rotten luck had gotten so bad for Irondequoit even the Buffalo Bills were showing sympathy.

There was a breakthrough Section V title in 2011, the Eagles’ first in 66 years when Josiah Heath’s legendary 26-point, 27-rebound game turned back archrival Greece Athena in the finals.

But surrounding that were three finals losses to Athena — Cardon’s alma mater — by margins of 3, 3 and 2 points, all as the No. 1 seed. Last year Athena beat Irondequoit in the semifinals in overtime.

Heck, one year the Eagles got bounced from the tournament by McQuaid on a half-court buzzer-beating shot that shouldn’t have counted.

Through it all, Chris Cardon showed the kind of leadership you want in a teacher, coach and father. He showed sportsmanship and class. He sucked it up then told his kids to lace 'em up and try again.

Along the way he showed nice guys do finish first.

“This means a lot to us because we have had some tough times, losing seasons, heart-breakers,’’ said Cardon, whose team won this season’s Section V Class A1 title by defeating — who else? — Athena, 61-44. “But you know, I never blamed any referees or scorekeepers. You have to make your own breaks and these guys on this team certainly have done that.

“You just persevere,’’ he went on. “I try not to look back at that stuff. You take a couple weeks off, try to learn from it, and get ready to play another season. I feel lucky that we were just in those situations, to play in five finals. Some of my buddies who are great coaches have never been to one, so I’m very blessed.’’

Blessed is the man in the arena whose perspective on life is so strong he can cherish victory and laugh at defeat. Who knows that losing a basketball game can never compare to losing a son.

Eighteen years ago, Chris and his wife Roxanna lost their son Cory to a congenital brain malformation. A full-of-gusto ball boy, team manager and sports fan, Cory was 14.

With shaved heads and “C.C.’’ written on their shoes, that brave 1999 Irondequoit squad made an inspired run to the sectional semifinals and all these years later Cory Cardon is still inspiring the Eagles to soar high with a CYO tournament and scoreboard named in his honor at the junior high.

And he's still lending his dad a hand. This season, with his team stuck in first gear and not playing well, Chris brought in photographs and told Cory's story to his players. It’s the kind of assist you don’t read in a box score.

“I told them, ‘I’m on you guys a lot and here’s why,’ " Chris said. “I go, ‘See this guy? He was born with brain damage but he did a lot of stuff people said he couldn’t do. I just want you to see this because you guys are stuck in the mud.’ We’ve been through a lot as a team, probably as much as any team I’ve had other than when Cory passed away. It’s made us stronger and more resilient and hopefully that will carry on with these guys through life.’’

When Cardon’s own high school career ended with a loss in the sectionals, he thought his love affair with basketball was over. But it was just starting.

Soon he was finding pick-up games in the city, playing for Corning Community College, earning his degree at SUNY Cortland and launching a career as a physical education teacher and coach that had his name written on it like Wilson is written on a basketball.

He’s come a long way from coaching Hoover Elementary in Greece and honing his craft under Section V Hall of Famer Doug Childs at Arcadia among other stops.

”I just really enjoyed the game even though I wasn’t very good at it and I loved working with kids,’’ said the ever-modest Cardon, who retired from teaching last year. “It all translated for me. I loved every minute of my 35 years teaching, too. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.’’

And when your phone blows up with 200 text messages congratulating you on a state championship, you weren’t meant to do anything else. Chris Cardon is so well liked in coaching circles, even opponents who lose to him are happy for the guy.

“The way he handles himself on the sidelines and how everybody in Irondequoit knows him from his teaching days, too, all these kids and mothers and fathers who come up to us at the games ...,’’ Frank Cardon said. “We’re so proud of him really.’’

While a state title and welcome-home parade sure make for a storybook ending, Chris Cardon has no plans to hang up his whistle. He didn’t inherit his father’s golfing gene. And once a gym rat, always a gym rat.

“I have no hobbies,’’ he said. “This is what I do. The games are fun but I like being at practice in the gym with the guys the most. When I don’t like doing that anymore, that’s when it’ll be time to retire.’’

Besides, it’s never been about titles for Cardon, it’s always been about the relationships.

When former players invite him to their weddings, call to say their wives are expecting or they landed that dream job, “that’s the real stuff,’’ Chris said. “I tell my kids, ‘We do the best we can with you during our time here, but we’ll find out how good a job we really did five, 10 years down the line.’ ’’

Besides, after whittling Athena’s series lead in title games to 3-2, he can’t quit now. But poor Frank and Monica. After this season, they won't be allowed to winter in Florida ever again.