Nasser: Fitch's greatest recruit

Concepts of endurance and patience have varied in degrees over the years, especially now when a slow Internet connection, for example, can incite eyerolls, sighs and tremors. So now imagine the levels required to maintain interest and passion in a particular endeavor, all of its evolutions and revolutions, for 51 years.

Fifty-one years.

The guy's only been married 29.

And now you know the reverence Bernie Nasser has for wrestling.

Nasser, a retired 36-year teacher at Fitch High School, finally gets his name immortalized Saturday when he's inducted into the Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame during a gala at Foxwoods.

He wrestled as far back as grammar school in Wilkes Barre, Pa. He was the coach at Fitch, an official for 38 years (high school and college). He is the backbone of the sport and the sports community in this corner of the world.

"I'm thrilled to death," Nasser was saying earlier this week during a telephone conversation while partaking of two of his favorite other pastimes: sipping a martini and watching the Yankees.

"This is something I always dreamed of," Nasser said, "but never expected."

Nasser taught English, public speaking and creative writing at Fitch, recruited here in the early '70s to coach wrestling. They used to recruit teachers back then. And so Nasser became part of an exodus from Wilkes Barre, his hometown, the place where his love of the sport began.

"We were all coal miners and factory workers," Nasser said. "Good work ethic."

Good concept of community, too. Nasser moved from the Polish neighborhood to the Irish neighborhood as a kid ("the food wasn't as good," he said) and began wrestling at St. John The Evangelist.

"I was in Boy Scout Troop 90. We had those old throw mats with handles. We tied them together and put a tarp on them," Nasser said. "That's the same thing we had when I got to Fitch."

Nasser resurrected the program at Fitch and won the 1975 Capital District Conference championship and the District 3 tournament, a regional qualifying event for the State Open. He also led Fitch to a Southeastern Athletic Conference (SAC) title in 1978.

And to think he really wanted the baseball job here all along.

"But they hired some guy named Harvey," Nasser said, alluding to Ed Harvey, who won more than 400 games and three state titles. "I think they made the right call there."

Nasser became an official in 1974, a prelude to 20 State Opens. He still officiates, a staple at so many meets, the guy with the dark beard and perpetual sense of humor.

That's the Bernie Nasser most of us know. Instigator, needler, a big laugh. And a man of eclectic tastes. He coached varsity softball and boys' soccer at Fitch. He's still the girls' varsity assistant soccer coach. Officiated baseball, basketball and track. He's even a horse owner now.

Few momentous events happen in Fitch sports now without a Bernie story. A few years ago, softball won the Class LL state title with a bunch of kids whose moms and aunts played for the program. Hence, a Bernie story:

"I remember the days," said Renee Khoury Cooper, mother of Arielle and Haley, alluding to her playing days. "The good ol' days. Bernie Nasser. If we stepped out of line he used to make us crawl to left field. He made us want to win."

Officially, Nasser said, it was not a crawl.

"Duckwalk," he said. "From home plate to the left-field foul pole, back to home, then to the right-field foul pole. I learned that in wrestling."

Then there was last season's baseball team. During its run to the Class L title, Nasser was the unwitting MVP. He coordinated a trip home for Paul Menhart, a former Fitch great, major leaguer and current pitching coach in the Washington Nationals organization. Menhart's message to them, a more colorful version of "stop trying to strike everyone out," stayed with the kids, all the way to the state championship game.

A kid of Italian and Lebanese heritage who lived in a Polish and Irish neighborhood comes here on a prayer more than 40 years ago and makes his school and his community a better place. He married Ellen, the familiar face at the Groton-Ledyard Veterinary Hospital. Later came Bernie Jr., an engineer at Electric Boat and Dan, completing his final year at the UConn School of Dental Medicine.

Nasser said he'd be remiss if he didn't mention Fitch golf coach Glen Graham, too.

"Nobody can have a better friend than Glen," he said.

Later, the future Hall of Famer said, "I know I have a lot of different interests and I love them all. I'm very lucky."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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