TORRINGTON >> Gaitan Rodriguez was beyond prepared when he walked into his interview for the Torrington High School head coaching position, a job he has wanted ever since he graduated from the school in 1997 after a football career that earned him the ’29 club award.
“I had about a 30-40 page vision of what my version of Torrington football would be like if I was the coach,” said Rodriguez, who coached running backs and defensive backs as an assistant at Torrington from 1999 through 2004. “It had my philosophies on coaching, philosophies on the football program, my expectations. It’s something that I’ve prepared for.”
After coaching as an assistant at Torrington, Rodriguez went to Sheehan High School, in Wallingford, and was the offensive coordinator there under John Ferrazzi.
“I’ve been coaching for 13 years and I was very involved at Sheehan High School and helping build up their program,” he said. ” I was coaching with John Ferrazzi, great guy, I learned a lot from him but he also allowed me to grow as a football coach. It was a great situation where I was able to study and pick up things.”
Rodriguez is taking over a football program that went 6-4 last season, but was marred by an in-season hazing scandal and then a tumultuous offseason where two players, Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio were charged with second-degree assault sexual assault for the rape of two separate 13-year-old girls. Two other football players were also arrested, but haven’t been named publicly because they are 17.
The story gained national attention after it was learned that students taunted and bullied the rape victims on social media.
After the season, but prior to the arrests of Gonzalez and Toribio, coach Dan Dunaj resigned.
In the wake of those issues, it was clear Torrington needed to turn to a coach who could do more than just win games.
Other than knowledge of Xs and Os, Rodriguez brings a background as a social worker in the Waterbury school system, where he works at two elementary schools.
“I love helping people, I like helping people change,” he said about his job where he works with adolescents with troubled pasts.
He doesn’t feel that because he is a social worker, that it will make him a good fit to be a head coach, but it helps.
“My experiences throughout my life, yeah I’ve been a social worker for officially five years, but all my experiences have prepared me for this point,” he said. “It’s all about being there for them, showing them that you care and just showing them the right way. There is a correct way of doing things and modeling that for them.”
Showing them how to act away from the field and preparing them for life, is something that Rodriguez feels is more important than winning games.
“For me it’s beyond Xs and Os, it’s beyond Friday night,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not about the wins, it’s all about raising young adults into adults and my background and my training, it comes natural to me to get them exposed to these things.”
One way that Rodriguez is trying this is by bringing in speakers to talk to the players, like Torrington’s legendary former basketball coach Tony Turina.
“I’ve had some speakers who have come in, I had coach Turina, former basketball coach here, during our preseason just speak to the guys about tradition, character, respecting your opponents respecting yourself, respecting people out of the community, everything,” he said. “I admire him as a coach, I always remembered him from high school and what stuck out to me is how his players respected him and they gave it there all for him. Being a man of character and just being a great guy I thought he would be a great guy to speak to our team.”
Bringing in Turina is just the first step in Rodriguez’s plans to bring to speak to his team about the Torrington tradition.
“I want to expose team to guys like that. I’m going to get guys that I played with, guys that played 20-30 years ago to come and speak to our team,” he said.
Torrington’s tradition is something that Rodriguez’s knows all about and he plans on building on.
“I’m not trying to bring back pride, I’m trying to have them be prideful of the program. There is a lot of tradition here,” he said. “Torrington has always been a respected, well-known sports town. We will have a team that people will, number one, be proud of and, number two, were going to be prideful about it”
Being a good student is something that Rodriguez expects from his players.
“First and foremost, it’s in the word ‘student-athlete.’ Student is first, athlete is second. We are going to do everything we can do to support our players academically, with providing study halls and monitoring grades,” said Rodriguez.
It’s that type of well-rounded student that Rodriguez wants playing on his team because he knows that the majority of the players that comes through the program aren’t going to play at the college level, let alone the professional.
“The type of the kids I want in this football program, I want a whole round kid. I want them to be exposed and get a great high school experience. I just don’t want a football player and that’s all. You need to have balance in your life,” said Rodriguez.
“I tell them football can be taken away from you like that,” he said, while snapping his fingers. “But no one is ever going to take away your education.”
And if anyone thinks that Rodriguez won’t know if his players are late, skip class or have poor grades.
Rodriguez has already talked to his players, “Oh yeah they know.”
Rodriguez plans on being part of the Torrington football program for years to come and wants to leave his mark.
“I bleed Raider Red and this is where I want to be. I love this community, I love this school, and I love it here. I’m enjoying every single moment of it,” he said. “We all take our program and put our own signature on it.”
The Red Raiders open up their season on the road at Ansonia, the No. 2 ranked team in the state, on Friday night at 7 p.m.
“You look at our situation and these kids are resilient and we talk about things as a group and we’ve set out a plan on what we want to do and we’ve moved forward and that’s been our thing.”