NISKAYUNA — John Furey took one for the team.
Rather than step aside like he did after 21 seasons with the Niskayuna baseball team last spring, the veteran Silver Warriors coach came back for his 22nd campaign with the high school’s football team that he knew would struggle for wins.
“I thought it was better that I was in that position rather than a new coach,” Furey, who retired as a Niskayuna physical education instructor last June, said. “How would it have impacted that coach? How would it have impacted their future? I am what I am. I defined what I was in the past.”
Furey’s reputation was that of a coach who put his players first. That’s why he called off Niskayuna’s season after Friday’s 26-14 crossover loss to LaSalle in what was its closest contest, and called it a career.
Niskayuna went 0-8, marking its fifth straight losing season after a superb run that saw the program reach consecutive Section II semifinal games from 2008-10. His 1996 edition went one step further, playing for the Section II Class A championship.
“We made decisions on a week-to-week basis as to whether we were going to go on,” said Furey, who graduated most of the key pieces from his 3-6 2015 squad. “We pushed the limits pretty hard. We started with 26 or so, and we were down to 18, maybe 20 able bodies.”
Niskayuna was thin in numbers and inexperienced, too, in its return to Class AA ball after spending two seasons as a Class A non-playoff-eligible team. Furey and his staff, which included his son Pete, a three-year assistant, were working with a handful of student-athletes who had never played football before.
“We were challenged, but I have to say our growth was tremendous,” Furey said. “We had kids step up and do some great things. The thing is, when you start with such inexperience, you can only grow so much.”
Niskayuna had a much different look not too long ago when, Furey said, he had more multi-sport athletes coming out.
“Those three years we went to the semifinals we beat Shenendehowa, Queensbury and Saratoga [in quarterfinal games],” Furey said. “Those were some teams that had done some things. That’s where we were. We had 50 kids and we were able to go full platoon on offense and defense. We had it going on. Those were some good days.”
In a 13-year stretch from 1999 through 2011, when Niskayuna featured such quarterbacks as Brian Grastorf, Danny Peters, Kyle Bayly and Rob Singleton, it fielded eight winning teams and another one finish a game under .500. Furey’s 1996 team that had placed in the middle of the Suburban Council pack beat Ballston Spa and Amsterdam in the Class A sectionals before a Super Bowl loss to Troy, that year’s state champion.
“Our biggest game, obviously, was beating Amsterdam 22-0,” said Furey, whose 1996 team included future NFL receiver Andre Davis. “They won the state championship the year before, and I think they were ranked No. 1 in the state at the time. That was a huge, huge game for us.”
Whether winning a lot or not so much, all of Furey’s teams had a similar trait in the way they stayed after it and the classy nature they displayed.
“That’s what we look for,” Furey said. “Kids to play as hard as they could. Sportsmanship. Accountability. Growth from the time they came in to the time they left. Hopefully we achieved those things.”
Niskayuna posted an 86-108-1 record with Furey, made the playoffs nine times, reached five sectional final fours, and, from 2000-03, shared three Suburban Council championships.
“We were an up-and-down program over the years,” Furey, a 13-year Bethleham assistant before coming to Niskayuna, said. “We played well many of those years.”
The 59-year-old Bethlehem and Ithaca College graduate envisions a Niskayuna comeback. In an effort to help make that happen, several years ago he pushed for Niskayuna’s inclusion in the Capital District Youth Football League were third through sixth-graders can begin their prep for future varsity seasons.
“Our eighth-grade team had one loss this year. I coached them,” Furey said. “We’ve got a decent group of about a dozen 11th-graders, and 22, 23 sophomores. Solid group. In the next couple of years our varsity players, if they work hard and do the right things, will have a chance for success.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Jim Schiltz at 395-3143, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jim_schiltz on Twitter.