Huddle Up: Turcotte remembered as ultimate friend, coach

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His friends will tell you there was only one Coyne Turcotte.

If life was fair, there would always be one Coyne Turcotte in every town, at least every town that wants its kids to play football the right way.

One week ago, Coyne Turcotte passed away, or as his obituary writer more aptly put it, “Coyne Joseph Turcotte, 66, took a knee in his battle with pancreatic cancer.”

In football parlance, taking a knee is also known as the victory formation. Judging by the friends “Turc” kept and the scores of lives he touched in over 40 years as a coach and teacher, he went out a winner.

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Turcotte taught social studies and physical education at St. Joseph’s School and Lewiston Junior High. He also coached baseball and basketball. But it is in the local football circles where his loss is being felt the most.

Football was a constant in Turcotte’s life. He was a lineman on Lewiston’s 1963 state championship football team. He played defensive tackle on the University of Maine team that went to the Tangerine Bowl in 1965, and got his first coaching job as a student-teacher at Orono High School.

He made brief stops at Lisbon, where he served as a freshman coach and varsity assistant with current head coach Dick Mynahan, and Telstar, where he worked as an assistant and scouted for his Lewiston and UMaine teammate, Dick Collins.

A year after Collins became head coach at Lewiston, he brought Turcotte on board as his line coach. A decade later, when Collins later returned to coach Lewiston’s freshman team, he brought Turcotte back to help him.

It was around that time that Turcotte was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I remember when he had Hodgkin’s, his voice was extremely high at the time. That’s one of the things I remember is that high-pitched scream, ‘Bisson, get that (butt) down! Move, move move!'” said Lewiston graduate Justin Bisson, who was one of Turcotte’s freshman linemen in 1993. “He was gruff and tough and he’d put a boot up your butt, but he was that guy that would put an arm around you after practice, too.”

The cancer went into remission, but other health problems persisted for the balance of his life. Turcotte never backed down from those, either, and he wasn’t ready to quit when the cancer returned.

“He never missed a practice,”  said Collins, a retired physical education teacher at Lewiston. “There were times where I’d look up and he’d be over by the fence getting sick, and I’d say, ‘Look, you can’t keep…’ and he’d say, ‘No, no, don’t worry about it.’ He just hung with it, the best he could.”

Turcotte remained the consummate right-hand man for Collins, and an even better friend.

“I had a real strong trust with him. He was a loyal friend, a loyal coach, no matter what,”  Collins said. “He was loyal to Lewiston. He went to as many games as he could, right up to the end.”

Friends said they couldn’t imagine Turcotte without football, or football without Turcotte.

“He enjoyed all parts of football,” said Mynahan, whose friendship with Turcotte went back to their grammar school days at St. Joseph’s. “He was interested in doing things the right way and having kids and coaches do things the right way. He loved the job that he did.”

Turcotte was never a head coach. He was never in the limelight. He was the guy behind the scenes who rolled up his sleeves and did the work that no one knew about except those closest to the team.

Every strong high school football team has someone like him, the person who’s probably fifth or sixth on the list of coaches in the game program, if he’s listed at all.

Turcotte didn’t do it for the glory. He did it for the same reasons he kept teaching even after he could have retired. He felt he owed it to the kids and the game he loved.

He also loved the camaraderie that coaches, particularly football coaches, have. He regularly held court in the Lewiston coaches’ room, and never let his illness sour his disposition. Imagine being a fly on the wall, hearing football lifers like Turcotte, Collins, Dick Leavitt and Bill County. swap stories. 

“The thing I’m going to miss the most is the time with Coyne after football practices, sitting in the coaches’ room and hearing him tell his stories,” Lewiston athletic director Jason Fuller said. “The times when he was in the locker room were some of the funnest times I’ve had. I’ve never laughed so hard. We lost a good one with him.”

Mynahan lost a trusted advisor, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone who would call him after a big win or a tough loss and always shoot straight with a friend when he needed an unflinching critique.

“I can’t tell you how many times during a football game I’d look down the sidelines and see Turc standing there. And I knew after the game, he’d give me his rundown, whether I liked it or not,” Mynahan said. “It meant a lot to me.”

Of course, someone who was always eager to give advice for a coaching institution like Mynhanan had a lot to offer a coaching neophyte, too. In seven years as an assistant at Lewiston Middle School, Bisson made sure to look up his old line coach on a regular basis.

“I’d get out of work and go to his office every day and spend 20 minutes hanging out with him and picking his brain,” said Bisson, who was recently named head coach at Windham Middle School. “He was just a great mentor, and a great man.”

Turcotte was everybody’s coach, even in his declining health. He was there for Collins’ son, Kevin, helping him through two successful bouts with cancer. Just one month ago, in the painful final stages of his illness, he was still there for Mynahan, going over notes on defense and encouraging his friend to not get discouraged after a trying 2012 season at Lisbon.

“I don’t think I’ve ever understood what courage was until I saw the way Turc has handled this illness, for himself, for his family, for his friends,” Mynahan said. “He showed true courage at the end… something that I’m so proud of him for being able to do.”

Whether we ever play sports or not, we should all have a coach like Coyne Turcotte.

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