By Jeanne Sager
TROY September 14, 2007 He used to be the kid carrying the water bottles on the sidelines at the Sullivan West football games.
These days, he’s “Coach” Polizzi, the newest member of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) football staff.
At 20, Justin Polizzi is by far the youngest coach at the NCAA Division III school.
Still enrolled at the College of St. Rose just south of RPI in Albany, Polizzi finishes his classes by mid-day, stows his books and drives to Troy.
There he sheds his student persona to take his spot coaching the defense on the school’s jayvee team.
Polizzi has been a football fan since he first got his hands around a pigskin, but his doctors sidelined him because of a childhood heart condition.
“It killed me, I used to fight with my mom about it all the time,” he recalled. “But you can’t argue with the doctors.”
As a teenager, he ran up and down the sidelines at the Sullivan West Bulldog games, officially the “manager” under the auspices of Coach Ron Bauer just to be involved in the game.
When he graduated from Sullivan West in 2005, Polizzi decided to pursue a degree in business administration, concentrating on sports management.
“I knew I wanted to coach, I wanted to see how far I could go,” he explained. “But I also figured I could go to the front office or sports agent if that didn’t work out.”
An internship through school put him in the front office of the Albany Conquest, an Arena Football League team in the East Division of the American Conference.
Apparently, he made an impact.
When the team lost its operations guy, someone in front office recommended Polizzi for the job.
He was hired last year as special assistant to the head coach and head of football operations.
It was a job where he wore many hats, Polizzi said.
When players came to town to play semi-professional ball, Polizzi helped them find homes and day jobs.
He broke down film, worked with the defensive coordinator and helped coach the D line.
Meanwhile, Polizzi lined up a gig at Hudson Valley Community College where he mentored the running backs and helped with recruiting in his role as an assistant coach.
The arena football schedule from late March through mid-summer has allowed him to work on both the semi-pro and college coaching levels, and Polizzi finished out this Conquest season just in time to begin his newest challenge at RPI.
Conquest Head Coach Pete Costanza helped Polizzi on the path to RPI he’s the assistant coach in charge of the defensive backs for the Engineers.
The coaching staff made the RPI job attractive to Polizzi for their experience.
Hired with him this season were alums of two NCAA Division I programs, Navy and Boston College.
“I’m trying to coach, but at the same time, I’m trying to learn,” Polizzi admitted. “All these guys really know what they’re talking about.”
Polizzi considers himself lucky to have stood on the sidelines with long-time Delaware Valley and now Sullivan West coach Bauer.
“Everything he said and everything he did was true to color,” Polizzi said of his mentor. “Most of what he preaches, in some way, shape or form, they preach it too at this level.”
Bauer spouted universal truths, Polizzi said, driving home points about football specifically and life in general.
“The little things about following your assignment and doing what you have to do,” he recalled. “There’s so much about football that you can relate to every day life, maybe that’s why I like it so much.
“You know, you could lose a major game, but the sun’s going to come up tomorrow like Bauer said,” Polizzi continued. “You know, it’s the same in life where your house could burn down, but the sun’s going to come up tomorrow.”
His chance to spend time on the sidelines, watching Bauer, was also instrumental in Polizzi’s successes already.
“When I first got here, just showing I was around the game gave them confidence that I wasn’t just some kid off the street,” he said. “I knew what was going on.”
Polizzi’s youth is a non-issue on the gridiron.
Both the Conquest and RPI have been willing to work around his class schedule, and he’s managed to keep his grade point average at a respectable 3.1 despite working six to seven days a week as a coach.
The players at Hudson Valley were younger than him, and although the Conquest players are generally out of college they’re mature enough to handle a young coach.
So far the RPI players have responded well too, Polizzi said.
“I try to watch what I say,” he admitted. “I choose my words so I don’t come off sounding like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Polizzi will be attending all of the JV games this season, and he’ll spend the Saturday varsity games up in the booth with other coaches charting defense, looking at alignments, seeing what the team or the coaches could do differently.
Fast on his feet after all he learned the playbook in just one week between the Conquest season’s end and the start of camp for RPI Polizzi is confident he can juggle school and football.
He’ll have a short break to come home to visit mom Nadine in Callicoon when both RPI and St. Rose close for the winter holiday.
Still a certified ski instructor and member of the National Ski Patrol, Polizzi has been itching to hit the slopes.
But he’ll cut short his playtime to head to annual NCAA honors conference for coaches out in Anaheim, Calif. in January to continue networking.
By March, it will be back to work for the Conquest season.
A junior at St. Rose, Polizzi has until 2009 to decide his true career path, but he still wants to coach, hopefully in Division I.
“If I had to get up every day and see myself doing something, I guess this is it,” Polizzi said. “It’s a blast; I love it.
“That saying, it’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else, well I took that to heart,” he concluded. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do than coach football.”