Longtime Lower Burrell Flyers coach honored for 39 years of service in the organization
It was a family affair.
Saturday was the last home game at Flyers Field in Lower Burrell for longtime Flyers youth football team coach John “Butch” Nowikowski, who was honored before the game for his 39 years of service. A player himself as a boy, Nowikowski coached more than 650 boys during his tenure.
Present were his son and grandson — both of whom he has coached — and at least 15 other family members who were Flyers in one capacity or another.
“All of the boys played and the girls cheered,” said Sara Nowikowski, 34, of Lower Burrell, one of Coach Butch's three children and the Flyers cheerleading coach. “My son is now playing as a Flyer and my dad gets to coach him. It's awesome.”
And that's not even all of the four generations of the Nowikowski family who have served on the board, coached, caught a football, lifted a pom-pom or helped sell hot dogs.
“This is a part of our life,” said Janine Syput, 55, of Lower Burrell, one of Coach Butch's sisters. “This will be sad today. My parents started this, and now my brother is finishing.”
Coach Butch's mother, the late Pat Nowikowski, was the first official member of the Flyers board when it was founded in 1957. His father, the late John Nowikowski Sr., built the concession stand.
A tribute was read over the loudspeaker Saturday as Nowikowski was flanked by his players, family members and cheerleaders holding the banner: “Thank you Coach Butch for 39 years. Now take us to the super bowl.”
Coach Butch was proud to take his son John, now 33, of Leechburg, to the youth football super bowl in 1995. The Flyers handily won Saturday's game against the Highlands Rams 54-0, so the coach will head to another super bowl this weekend against Freeport with his grandson Dominic Holmes, 13, of Lower Burrell.
In fact, Coach Butch's desire to follow two of his grandsons as they advance to high school and college football helped him decide to retire.
“It seemed like a good time,” said the 61-year-old coach.
“These have been the best 39 years of my life,” he said after the game.
Football is life
The easiest part of coaching, according to Nowikowski, is to love to work with kids.
The hardest part: The discipline.
“The kids should have discipline at home,” he said.
After working with kids for just shy of 40 years, they have changed, according to Nowikowski.
“They are bigger, faster, stronger and definitely smarter,” he said.
“The team I have here has been the easiest to coach in 35 years,” Nowikowski said. “They pick things up quickly.”
With the popularity of computers and smartphones, the coach believes kids have to join some fitness or sports organization.
But to excel, a child needs to want to participate in the sport, not just heed the commands of a parent.
“Let them excel, don't push them into it,” he advised.
The coach's wife, Kim Nowikowski, said she will miss the excitement.
“It's been nice watching the kids grow. And that is what happens when you watch them play for years,” she said.
Nowikowski's players learned more than how to play football, said Dave Bellinotti, 45, of Lower Burrell, a former Flyer and Flyers head coach who now is head coach of Burrell High School's football team.
“It's not about football, it's about life,” Bellinotti said.
“Coach Butch's players learned to be relied upon in life,” he said.
Selfless role model
Many coaches, especially for youth sports, will move on shortly after their child outgrows a team.
Not Nowikowski. Although he had a number of family members cycling in and out of the Flyer organization over the years, there was a bigger reason for his longevity and dedication, according to family and former players.
“He was such a role model to put time out there for someone else,” said Nowikowski's daughter, Brieanne Rice, 36, of North Huntingdon. That kind of service runs throughout the family: Rice is the cheerleading coach for a youth football team in North Huntingdon.
“When you spend 39 years as a youth football coach, it's a special person,” said Bellinotti, who played for Nowikowski twice. “He was fun, but he expected a lot. He always made sure you knew what you were doing.”
Among other things, Nowikowski was known for his successful offensive line.
“When I was a kid, the Flyers had swagger,” Bellinotti said.
“Coach Butch stayed with the team when they lost, too,” he said. “He has been a constant.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.