Werner Kleemann: Beloved Section V football coach remembered as 'giant of a man
by Leo Roth Democrat and Chronocle April 5, 2018
Section V Hall of Fame football coach Werner Kleemann once said, “You never get rich as a coach. You never get rich as an educator. But you get rich with the experiences and the friendships.’’
Werner Kleemann was a very wealthy man.
Mr. Kleemann, who guided the Rush-Henrietta School District as a beloved coach, teacher, athletic director, principal, mentor and friend for more than 30 years and well after retirement, died Wednesday of medical complications.
He was surrounded by loved ones at the Wilmot Cancer Center.
He was 76.
Mr. Kleemann battled myriad health issues, including diabetes, congestive heart failure and NK LGL leukemia, a rare chronic blood disease.
His health issues inspired his former players and colleagues to start the "Friends of Werner Kleemann Blood Drive,'' which in two years collected more than 300 units of blood for the American Red Cross Rochester District.
“He said from his hospital bed that if something good came out of this, it’s looking at how many donors we had,’’ Mr. Kleemann’s daughter, Kristen LaBombard, said. “People would always ask him, ‘What kind of life have you had?’ And he’d say, ‘Successful, because success is measured by happiness’ and he had a happy life. Everything he did he did with passion.’’
Mr. Kleemann grew up in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, the son of German immigrants who ran a bakery.
He graduated from Springfield College but a concussion playing football ended dreams of a career in the Marines and set him on a course in coaching and education.
Stints at Ilion High, Herkimer County, where he met his wife, Cheryl, and the University of Buffalo, led Mr. Kleemann to Rush-Henrietta.
Replacing Syracuse and NFL player Paul McKee, who founded the R-H program, was a daunting challenge. But from 1972-1985, Mr. Kleemann’s R-H Sperry teams compiled a record of 95-25-4 with six Monroe County league titles, two undefeated teams, and a 21-game win streak.
His '76 squad was ranked No. 1 and won the mythical New York state championship.
Werner Kleemann coached at the University of Buffalo before arriving at R-H in 1971. He had a record of 95-25-4 and is a member of the Section V Hall of Fame and Frontier Field Walk of Fame.
“When you take over for a guy who was a legend, began the program and was 55-3, you’ve got your hands full,’’ said Rick Page, Mr. Kleemann’s longtime assistant and close friend. “But Werner was not your typical coach and he became a legend, too. He was more like a father figure. He expected hard work and loyalty from his players and he gave the same thing back.’’
As a favor to the district, Mr. Kleemann returned to coaching in 2004 on an interim basis. A member of the Frontier Field Walk of Fame, his work on behalf of players and coaches continued long after his coaching days. He volunteered his time tirelessly for the Section V Football Committee and was a wildly popular football clinician.
“Werner was a good one,’’ retired Section V committee head Dick Cerone said. “He helped develop everything we did. He was down to earth and just had this way of saying ‘We’re doing this’ and we all did it. We’re going to miss him and miss his wisdom dearly.’’
At clinics, Mr. Kleemann enthusiastically shared his knowledge to generations of coaches in an unforgettable way. He was charismatic, said Don Santini, his Hall of Fame colleague at rival Fairport High.
“Great storyteller, great speaker,’’ Santini said. “He could get you fired up, not just the kids, but the coaches, too. He just had a knack for it and it was great.’’
Like many former colleagues, Santini kept in regular contact with Mr. Kleemann with phone calls, emails and lunch visits during his long illness. His death was being felt throughout the coaching community.
“So much class,’’ Santini said. “We had a big rivalry, Fairport and Rush-Henrietta, but when the game was over, that was it. We’d get together and shoot the baloney about the old days and he always had that positive attitude, always. I just feel horrible. He was such a great coach and an even better man.’’
Mr. Kleemann had a bear-like stature that commanded a room but it was tempered by a warm smile and demeanor that brought people together.
At R-H, he had an open-door policy and he meant it, taking interest in not just his players, but all students, imparting his old-school wisdom.
Thanks to the blood drives and social media, Mr. Kleemann heard from ex-players and students from around the country going back decades and came to realize the impact he had made.
“When you read the stuff people put on Facebook, my God,’’ Mr. Kleemann said in a 2016 interview. “You touched people you never knew you touched. The response has been so amazing.’’
Mr. Kleemann was known for his motto spoken to generations of players: “E equals R.’’
That stood for “Effort equals Results.’’
“And the bigger the E, the bigger the R,’’ he would implore.
As a coach, he gave out Nestle Crunch bars for big hits and as a lunchroom monitor “Giraffe Awards.’’
“A kid would drop a tray and what happens? Everyone cheers,’’ Mr. Kleemann explained. “But then someone would come over to help the kid out, so I made the ‘Giraffe Award’ because you stuck your neck out to help somebody.’’
Mr. Kleemann’s recall of games and names could entertain people for hours. R-H players from the '60s, '70s and 2000s visited him in his final days.
“He was telling stories two days before he passed, recalling the only game he missed was the time he had knee surgery,’’ daughter Kristen said. “He could tell you the score, the plays that were called, who was the quarterback. Someone asked him, ‘Coach, how can you remember so much?’ And he’d say, ‘Because it meant so much.’ "
As did doting on his seven grandchildren. He enjoyed watching their sporting events and taking them fishing.
Werner Kleemann and his grandson Cole Kleemann play with Hot Wheels and look at hockey cards. Werner is a Section V Hall of Fame football coach battling a rare form of leukemia that requires blood transfusions. His former players and the Rush-Henrietta school community organized a blood drive in 2016. (Photo: MAX SCHULTE/@maxrocphoto/, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
News of Mr. Kleemann’s death triggered an outpouring of condolences.
“Giants walk among us and he was a giant of a man,’’ said John Sacchitella, a member of Mr. Kleemann’s undefeated 1982 Section V champs. “Coach Kleemann has been a coach, role model and an inspiration to so many.’’
Sacchitella was among the players who organized the blood drives after their mentor expressed one day how he felt “guilty’’ for taking transfusions when so many other people were in need.
“The comment he made most about the blood drives was, ‘Look, it’s like a reunion,’ " Sacchitella said. “It was his friends, his family, his football family. It was nice to be able to pay him back for all he did for us. They say one person can change the world. Coach Kleemann certainly did that, and he’ll continue to do so.’’
He is survived by Cheryl, his wife of 48 years, children Brian, Kristen and Amy, his grandchildren, relatives, friends and colleagues.
Viewing hours are 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday at Miller Funeral and Cremation Services, 3325 S. Winton Road, Henrietta.
A funeral service will take place at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Rush Methodist Church, 6200 Rush-Lima Road. The family is establishing a scholarship fund in Mr. Kleemann’s memory.