Every athlete encounters a series of coaches during his or herlife. The most fortunate athletes find at least onewhose positive impact on their lives surpasses anything that can be measure in yards or points.
Raheem Morris was one of the fortunate ones. He played for a man at Hofstra University named Joe Gardi who proved to be much more than a coach for Morris. He was a mentor, a father figure and, as Morris said on Thursday, "one of the most influential people in my life."
Gardi died on Monday from complications of a stroke suffered eight days earlier. He was 71. He will be deeply missed by many, including Morris, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach.
"My entire family and my whole football family is deeply saddened today by the loss of beloved Coach Gardi," said Morris. "He was a such a special man, talented teacher, and gifted leader. When I teach my players, I call upon Coach's wisdom and passion for the game. Personally and professionally, I will forever be grateful for his presence in my life."
Gardi was the head coach at Hofstra from 1990-2005 and he helped the program transition into Division I-AA almost immediately after his arrival. Morris, lightly recruited out of high school in Irvington, New Jersey, was lured to Hofstra by Gardi and played four seasons there as a safety.
"You're talking about a man who came to north New Jersey, recruited me, sat in my household, talked to my parents," said Morris. "He came there when nobody else really cared or thought anything of it. He gave me a scholarship; brought me to Hofstra; taught me what it was like to be a man; raised me, as far as dealing with all different types of ethnic groups, dealing with different people and how to behave in certain settings and certain atmospheres. It's just everything we talk about, about being a man, talk about growing up, talk about forming your character and what you're going to be when you become that guy. You talk about the love of football and his ability to teach us and teach everybody around him, his coaching staff and his players."
Morris, who served as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1998, credits Gardi with setting him on the path to his current prominent position in the NFL.
"It didn't stop after I finished playing," said Morris of Gardi's mentorship. "He was one of the guys that encouraged me to go into coaching. He was one of the guys that encouraged me to become the best teacher I could be in this profession, how to treat it, how to study other people. He never stopped with his ideas and he's just one of those guys that will always be a part of my life and always be a part of my family's life."
Gardi held several positions in the NFL before taking the head job at Hofstra. In addition to coaching nine seasons with the New York Jets, including five as the team's defensive coordinator, he also spent five years as the NFL's assistant supervisor of officials.