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Teaching Prose & Pros
Dolphins QB Fiedler among many mentored by Frank Luisi

Thirty seconds on the phone with Frank Luisi ’74 and you know he’s a connector. You’ve never met the guy or heard of him before this year, but the word on him from many sources makes you wonder if you should drop John Paul II a note. If Luisi’s infectious, look-out-for-others, man-on-a-mission work ethic were patented, he’d be rich, or rather, the rest of us would be, and no doubt world peace would be on the horizon.

Fortunately for his students in English and his football athletes at Oceanside High School in Long Island, New York, Luisi’s not — despite his larger-than-the-room personality — a spotlight grabber. He’d rather shine the beam on their success than tout his own. Called for an interview for VQ about his work and influence, Luisi launched, instead, into a paean to the professors and coaches at UVM who changed his life.

Ironically, it’s just that selfless attitude that has brought him more than a few moments of wider fame. His name has been bandied about on NPR and in ESPN Magazine thanks to his highest-profile alumnus, who often pulls his own Luisi-like lateral of the credit.

Jay Fiedler, quarterback of the Miami Dolphins, was coached by Luisi at Oceanside, the beginning of a close and lasting connection. Fiedler told ESPN Magazine that his hero growing up was “my coach at Oceanside High School, Frank Luisi,” who “would do anything for us. Coach kept me focused. He still calls after every game.”

Luisi came to UVM in 1970 to major in English and, he hoped, to play football. Although he did play — through UVM’s penultimate season — he had a lot to learn. UVM had switched to a pass offense in the ’70s, not his forte. He didn’t realize then that fate had handed him a backdoor gift. He says now, “All that emphasis on the passing game helped me help Jay,” who eventually had the dubious thrill of following passing giant Dan Marino on the Dolphins. Luisi gives all thanks for his Catamount football experience to Rick Farnham, one of his coaches and now athletic director, and head coach Joe Scanell.

Farnham returns the favor. “Frank was as hardworking an individual as you’d ever want to meet in the field of athletics. He wasn’t a great player, but he could be a model for hard work and perseverance. … I can still see Frank running two more sprints after everyone else was done so he might get a little bit better. … I can’t think of anyone more loyal to his coaches, team, players, and the university. He’s one of those people who goes through life being grateful.” Luisi comes by his expansive goodwill legitimately. Farnham laughs as he recalls the Long Island road-game when Frank’s mother boarded the bus with a basket of eggplant parmigiana for the team.

Homesickness was even harder to tackle for the freshman Luisi than studies or sports. “I missed New York … I missed my family a great deal,” he says. But, there again, he found UVM people happy to fill the vacuum. “There were some wonderful people at UVM. Bill Stephany (now professor of English) was a great influence on my life as a teacher. He brought me into his home, I babysat his kids. Arthur Biddle (now emeritus professor of English) also was a great influence. In education, Charlie Rathbone (now associate professor) was a very positive man, and the atmosphere of the school encouraged me to help kids. In the Newman Center, Father Francis Holland, the director, had a big influence on me going into teaching and helping kids.”

Rathbone still finds Luisi memorable. “Frank was one of those students who makes you feel like you are doing something really important,” he says. “He always had incredible interest and motivation to learn. I loved his contributions to class and his ongoing commentary and questions. I am so glad he has been able to influence hundreds of high school students. Lucky young adults!”

Luisi holds inviolate UVM’s philosophy of the scholar-athlete. “I believe in excellence in academics and in sports. It’s why I became an English teacher and not a phys ed teacher,” he says. Although he didn’t have Fiedler in his class (“He didn’t need much help in class … he had a 98 average in high school.”), the coach judged him “a good but not great” player, who “worked hard at it, and now he is great.”

He also guided Fiedler’s choice of college. Luisi, who met his wife in Stowe, was a frequent visitor to the Green Mountains and wanted Fiedler to be near them. With UVM out of the football business, he directed him toward Dartmouth, to be sure “he pursued the best academic education.” Fiedler made coach proud on both fronts. “He broke all the passing records at Dartmouth,” Luisi says, “and he was one of the most endeared” players. Ever the scholar, Luisi says, “On bus trips to games, Jay would be reading Melville or Dante. He’s a special guy.”

“The power of writing,” which Luisi says he absorbed at UVM, “helped me to help Jay,” in his career. Released by the Philadelphia Eagles after two seasons, Fiedler was searching for his next QB job. Luisi stepped in with a letter to every coach in the NFL about Fiedler’s characteristics and qualities. Twelve wrote back, two called, and the Vikings sent a plane ticket for a tryout. Fiedler flew out to Minnesota, where he signed a $300,000 contract that day. Fiedler visited Luisi’s English class at Oceanside the next day to deliver the good news.

Now in his third season with the Miami Dolphins, Fiedler seems unintimidated by Marino’s records. Last season, he followed that leader, becoming the second Dolphins QB to throw 3,000 yards in a season, and third (behind Marino and Bob Griese) to throw 20 touchdowns, leading the team to an 11-5 record.

Meanwhile, for Luisi, there’s a new troupe of students to guide, probably with an occasional timeout to call Fiedler or huddle with the media. And, another season of football as metaphor for a life lived like a pro.

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