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    Monday, June 05, 2023

    RIP John Risley, who was truly larger than life

    It has been suggested that people portrayed as larger than life often must run fast to catch up with their own image.

    But the life of John Risley offers a different tale, one where "larger than life" isn't merely a portrayal, but a very real narrative of a passionate and sincere man whose verve and gusto didn't require the national stage to become of legend.

    There was always a story about Coach Riz, a man who always cared and who always let you know.

    Risley, a former teacher at New London High and legendary coach at Windham High and Eastern Connecticut State University, died last week at 84.

    "I taught right across the hall from John. There was a lot of baseball talk between classes," said Jim O'Neill, a longtime teacher at New London High and the man who led New London American Legion to two World Series appearances in the mid-80s. "The best euphemism I can think of John is 'intense.'"

    Indeed. It begins and ends there with Risley, whose intensity was like his American Express Card: He never left home without it. Risley mastered the enviable vocation of pouring his soul into whatever he happened to be doing at the time.

    "Nobody could have ever given more to his family and to baseball than John did," O'Neill said. "It wasn't like John wasn't difficult at times. But I never met anybody else like him, in the sense that every day was everything he had. He was so much fun for me to be around. They separated us in school because they thought we talked baseball too much."

    Risley spent 17 years in the dugout of Willimantic American Legion coaching against O'Neill. He spent many years as the pitching coach at Eastern Connecticut under the great Bill Holowaty, becoming an ECSU Hall of Famer.

    "The first time I ever saw him I was playing freshman basketball at New London," said ECSU baseball alum Kevin Willoughby, who pitched on the 1982 national championship team. "Riz was coaching at Windham. We weren't halfway through the first quarter yet and I'm thinking, 'this guy is nuts.'

    "He worked our (butts) off. Side-to-side drills. He'd hit fungos and make us run the length of the field to catch the ball. Then we'd have to sprint back. He'd hit another fungo. But I'll tell you this: Riz was tough but fair. When you got to know him, everyone kind of felt the same way. You'd run through a brick wall for him."

    Maybe that's because when John Risley liked you, he'd run through a brick wall for you, too.

    "He was like a tiger," Willoughby said. "If anything ever happened in a game, like there's an issue with the other team, a dirty slide or maybe someone got thrown at, he'd be the first one on the top step of the dugout."

    And then Willoughby paused, chuckled and said, "he'd spend the rest of the game there, too."

    Risley coached basketball at New London briefly, following Bill O'Brien and Rich Conover, among others. This is an example of the storm coming after the calm.

    Risley's life away from sports was his family — and very likely the first family of sports in northeastern Connecticut. John and his late wife, Merle, had five children: Chris, Thad, Sean, Pat and Tara. Their athletic exploits in and around Windham and Willimantic have been fodder for conversation in barber shops, coffee shops and gin mills for decades now.

    John Risley's life needs no embellishment. He was loving and loud. Feisty and fervent. And proof that larger than life characters don't just come from the movies, stadiums or downtown arenas. They're in our communities, too.

    The people in and around Willimantic and Eastern Connecticut have their own example who was with us for 84 unforgettable years.

    "I loved competing against him," O'Neill said. "We had lot of respect for his Willimantic teams. Well coached and aggressive. They reflected John's personality. Sean was always on base. A very competitive family. That Willimantic program should have been the envy of other towns."

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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