It may be a stretch – but not too far – to refer to Emil DeBonis as “Braveheart.”
The 1995 Mel Gibson vehicle, portraying a Scottish warrior, is one of DeBonis’ favorite movies. And in a way it depicts DeBonis, who has been a behind-the-scenes warrior for the inimitable Farrell High football program.
For 11 years DeBonis served as the Steelers’ strength and conditioning coach. DeBonis builds bodies – and the psyche of athletes. The better conditioned the athlete, the greater his or her self-belief to be able to compete. And DeBonis’ tenure under coaches Jarrett Samuels and Amp Pegues produced a pair of PIAA Class 1A crowns the last two years.
“ ... Three state title runs. A lot of coaches can’t say that in thirty years of coaching,” DeBonis declared.
But the diminutive DeBonis decided to step away ... sort of. That was before Steelers’ skipper Pegues approached him. While DeBonis continued to train long-time clients and “putz around” with household chores, he was considering “ ... calling it a day. But when I told Coach Amp, he asked me, ‘Can I keep you on in a voluntary status?’ They were kind’ve in dire straits with this whole COVID(-19) thing going on."
“Am I officially done?” DeBonis rhetorically asked on a recent afternoon. “It’s just a good time to step away, spend more time with my family, yet keep my hands involved. ... I won’t be full time, but a volunteer. I’ll help them get through the summer with their conditioning or whatever else,” DeBonis explained, adding with a chuckle,
“And you know how it is: You don’t ever really leave something when you’re involved in athletics. You’re never completely separated. I love the guys on the staff. It’s a great brotherhood."
In 2009 DeBonis – at the urging of then interim co-directors Carolyn Williams and Wayne Bair – was with Buhl Community Recreation Center, working in its wellness center.
“Coach Jarrett was on a treadmill. He approached me and said he wanted to put together a strength program. He didn’t even get the words out of his mouth and I said, ‘Yes!’” DeBonis declared. “I always thought with the program Farrell (football) had always done so well, but we thought strength and conditioning would be like adding nitrous oxide to a souped-up car. ... It was a lot different from when I went (to school) there. But I just thought something else was needed and so did Coach Jarrett – to prevent injuries.”
It was an easy decision for DeBonis, Farrell High class of 1976. He played football for former “Night Riders’” Head Coach Bill Gargano and also competed in track and wrestled.
DeBonis’ son, Adam, played three years of Farrell football for Lou Falconi. Subsequently, Adam (Farrell High Class of 2006) – as a 19-year-old – established a world record in the dead lift (407 pounds) although he weighed 148 pounds at that time. Cliche-ish, perhaps, but Adam was a chip off the ‘ole block.
As was Emil DeBonis.
“My father (Arthur) was a very well-built, strong Italian cement-finisher (co-owner of DeBonis Bros. Construction). He was very strong, and I always admired him – he was my idol,” Emil DeBonis recalled. “And back in those days you had guys like Steve Reeves (the actor who starred in the 1959 film “Hercules Unchained”), so I got involved in body-building and power-lifting.”
The 5-foot-5-inch DeBonis competed at 154 1/4 pounds – with 3% body fat. He was the 1983 Virginia Strongest Man competition runner-up, and in 1994 won a Tri-State (Masters Division) title.
“I don’t think I’ll ever see that again,” the 62-year-old, now 170-pound DeBonis quipped regarding 3% body fat. “There’s probably a ‘three’ in there somewhere, but it’s not 3% (which may have been due, in part, to Antoinette, his late mother, who made the area’s best Christmas-time cannoli).”
From that mindset DeBonis’ bodybuilding and strength and conditioning blossomed into a 41-year career in the health and fitness industry.
“My hobby, my love, turned into a job,” he explained. “I knew I wanted to stay in the health field,” DeBonis related.
In 1980 he began an eight-year stint with Pyramid Fitness, co-owned by (former Brookfield High football standout) Ed Pryts and Gene Kirila. Among many clients, DeBonis worked at military bases as well as prisons. And his time with Pyramid produced other perks.
During Pryts’ time as a Penn State University linebacker, his strength and conditioning coach there was Dan Riley. Subsequently, Riley secured a similar post with the NFL’s Washington Redskins. There, DeBonis gleaned an opportunity to work with Coach Joe Gibbs and players such as All-Pro defensive lineman Dexter Manley, Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Darrell Green, and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Thiesmann, who was attempting to rehab a gruesome (and ultimately career-ending) leg injury sustained on a hit from legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
At that time DeBonis also met legendary Buddy Morris, who served as the University of Pittsburgh football program’s strength and conditioning coach. Morris currently is one of the best in the business, serving in a similar capacity with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Additionally, DeBonis devoted four years to the former Shenango Valley Osteopathic Hospital (before it became part of the UPMC network) in respiratory therapy. He, along with partner Dr. Nick Brennan, opened Hermitage Health and Rehabilitation.
A career highlight for DeBonis occurred in 1993 when Time magazine profiled his “Emil’s Kids” early intervention program. At that time the infamous Columbine High (Colorado) mass shooting occurred. A nationwide effort began to restore schools as safe places while attempting to quell the fear factor for children and adolescents.
“Time covered (the pilot program) right at Farrell High,” DeBonis proudly pointed out.
For his efforts, in 2000 DeBonis was cited in the Carnegie Museum of Science’s “Sports Works” wing.
At about that same time DeBonis succeeded Sharpsville native Lou DeJulia at the BCRC Wellness Center – a post he maintained for 17 years. Subsequently, he spent two years at Anytime Fitness.
But while you can take the kid out of Farrell, you cannot take Farrell out of the kid.
“You just can’t shake it,” DeBonis explained. “It keeps you young. They’re like my kids – literally. I’ve never had a bad experience in all those years. And Coach Jarrett and Coach Amp, I can’t say enough about them. Our staff never had problems, there never was anything among the coaches. We blended so nice.
“One great thing about football,” DeBonis related, “whether in the weight room or on the field, I always wanted to be down in there. I wanted to be able to tell (players) – or show them.”
DeBonis cited Falconi, who forged Farrell to back-to-back (1995-96) PIAA Class A crowns and is among Mercer County’s winningest scholastic football coaches. Falconi Field at Anthony J. Paulekas Stadium is home to the Steelers. Yet Falconi has remained on staff as a volunteer.
“I can’t explain it ... but that’s why I can’t keep my hands completely out of it. After the state title game (a 10-7 win over Bishop Guilfoyle at Hersheypark Stadium last December) we had a breakfast at the Italian Home Club and I asked Coach Amp if we could talk. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to have this talk.’ So he asked me, ‘Can I count on you?’ I told him I would stay on a volunteer status ... he could have my insight and input.”
Though it culminated in a 35-0 setback to Bishop Guilfoyle, Farrell’s foray to the 2015 state championship game remains memorable for DeBonis.
“With the small numbers we have at Farrell you need great conditioning to go both ways. In 2015, I remember we had nineteen kids on that team, which was pretty amazing – to go all the way in a sixteen-game season with everybody goin’ both ways with only nineteen kids.”
That was prefaced by a 3-year period (2008-10) when Farrell collided with Clairton in consecutive Class A western regional championship games. Clairton claimed all 3. The 2010 team was led by Robert Trudo, who eventually enjoyed a collegiate career at Syracuse University, and athletic Kevin Brodie.
“I always say that team would’ve won a state title if Clairton wasn’t there,” DeBonis recalled regarding the caliber of competition.
DeBonis brokered “brotherhood” as his chosen term in describing Farrell football.
“ ... More than brothers – truly,” he emphasized. “When we break the huddle we say ‘Family!’ We’ve shared laughter, we’ve cried. All the emotions. And that’s why we’ve had so much success at Farrell. Our relationships at Farrell went beyond football, and I don’t know any other school that can say that. Father ... brother. We (as coaches) did go above and beyond – in the trenches – but I mean more than just football. There’s a love and a bond there, there’s a respect.”
Opponents made Farrell a favored target. But the vitriol sometimes crossed not only the yard lines, but those of common decency.
“Down on the sidelines, you hear everything,” DeBonis related. “But we’d tell the kids, ‘You walk proud,’ and we did carry ourselves very, very well. There were many places where people’d say derogatory things about Farrell High’s football team and coaching staff. We’d hear some nasty and disparaging remarks in some places where played, but we never started any trouble, never fired back.
“We held our heads high. We let the scoreboard do our talking. And that’s hard to do when kids are faced with adversity. But the kids held their cool – and it wasn’t easy. ... They kept their dignity.
“And that’s because of the great leadership,” DeBonis continued. “Coach Jarrett and Coach Amp are great human beings, great mentors. They garnished the respect of the kids and the other coaches. And when kids respect you at home, you’ll have good things come out of it.
“Walt Disney could make a movie about our society ... how you could take a little, small town in western Pennsylvania, and that’s how it should be,” DeBonis said with pride, reiterating his sincere, signature slogan: “I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it.”
In addition to son Adam, now 32, Emil and his wife Lisa are the parents of sons Richie and Ryan Byerly, 34 and 33, respectively, and grandparents of 5 (with a 6th “on the way,” he said).
Summarizing his service to the Steelers’ staff, DeBonis said, “It’s been a great experience, that’s all I can say. I’ll never forget it. ... I loved it! Still love it! It was one of the greatest experiences in my life, coaching football and helping those kids at Farrell. ... I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
Referencing his favorite flick and Mel Gibson’s character (William Wallace) in Braveheart, DeBonis related, “There is a line I will never forget: ‘Every man dies, but not every man lives.’
“Even though I may have retired from training, I have not retired from life. I was fortunate to have lived my dream,” DeBonis concluded.