By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Tom Bonfigli began talking, his story twisting and turning like a mile-long strand of spaghetti. A labyrinth emerged. The tears, the anguish, the exhilaration, the peace, it’s all there along his path, leading him to where he is now. And it’s not, as one might assume, to Sacramento, where he is two days away from his team playing for the state basketball championship. He is in a place much more vital.
“It’s a blessing,” said the Cardinal Newman basketball coach, “not to wake up in the morning and wonder what I did last night.”
His mind is clear, as is his conscience. Bonfigli is home, at the school he loves, coaching and teaching. It sounds so simple and ordinary. Until he explains how he got here.
“Some people find it overwhelming,” Bonfigli said.
That’s from their perspective. Imagine his. Imagine if Bonfigli hadn’t remained clean and sober since March 11, 1996, if he hadn’t stopped drinking after 24 years, if he weren’t a recovering alcoholic.
“I wouldn’t be coaching or teaching at Cardinal Newman,” Bonfigli said. “My sponsor told me I’d be in an institution, a hospital or dead. He’s probably right.”
Those dark destinations were once impossible to imagine. He grew up in Santa Rosa and cleared tables at the legendary Lena’s, a Santa Rosa bar and restaurant named for his grandmother.
A 1971 Newman graduate, a 1975 Santa Clara graduate in political science, Bonfigli was going to be a lawyer when an unsolicited call came. Would he be an assistant coach at Newman in football, basketball and track? Bonfigli loved it and the kids loved him. In 1980, he became the head basketball coach. After 14 years he had a 280-103 record. He had become a fixture.
“I was a functioning alcoholic,” Bonfigli said. “I partied. I raised heck. I was obnoxious, judgmental, condescending. I knew I drank too much but I didn’t see it as critical. I was doing my job.”
A week before school was to begin in August 1994, then-Newman principal Tom Beecher called Bonfigli into his office. Bonfigli had a clause in his teaching contract unique to him that prohibited alcohol consumption. Beecher asked Bonfigli if he had a drink during the summer. Bonfigli said he had.
“I am terminating your contract with Cardinal Newman as teacher and coach,” he recalled Beecher saying. “Effective immediately. If you have any questions, contact the Diocesan lawyers.”
Bonfigli was speechless. He had not seen it coming. He was numb, in shock. He had been planning to lead a powerhouse team that fall, one he coached during the summer to a 57-3 record. Devastated, angry, feeling betrayed, Bonfigli did some construction work that fall and volunteered as an assistant varsity coach in Novato. No coaching jobs were open.
“The Santa Rosa School District wasn’t going to hire me,” Bonfigli said. “I was blackballed.”
By the following summer, Bonfigli was floundering. Out of the blue came another call. Justin-Siena in Napa was looking for a teacher who would coach basketball. Bonfigli applied. Justin-Siena principal Greg Schmitz called. Among other things Schmitz asked Bonfigli about his drinking.
“I have a drinking problem,” Bonfigli said, “and I’m trying to get it under control. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Schmitz was not discouraged. A follow-up interview convinced Justin-Siena officials of Bonfigli’s sincerity. He was hired. He said he didn’t drink during the season. The Justin-Siena basketball program offered a challenge. Seven kids were on the team, including freshmen. They didn’t even know how to get into the proper basketball stance.
“They finished the previous year at 5-23,” Bonfigli said. “Heck, I could drink and coach them to 5-23!”
In that first year Justin-Siena finished 12-15 and Bonfigli was named Coach of the Year in the Superior California Athletic League.
Then came March 10, 1996. Bonfigli was driving on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa. “I don’t know why it happened,” he said of his DUI arrest. “The disease is baffling.”
Bonfigli had eight beers. He blew, what he estimated, a .14 on the breathalyzer. He spent the night in the Sonoma County jail. The next morning, as he was about to be released, Bonfigli had what he described as “a moment of clarity.”
“I was at the depths, at the bottom,” he said. “I knew then I had my last drink. Something was lifted off my shoulders.”
Bonfigli went to 90 Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in 90 days. He told Schmitz and Carroll, “I screwed up.” They said it couldn’t happen again. He turned for help.
“I was powerless over the disease,” Bonfigli said. “You have to turn your life over to a power greater than yourself. If you don’t, you will never know sobriety. I asked the Blessed Mother for help. I couldn’t do it without her. I promised the Blessed Mother if she took care of me I would take care of her children.”
That meant the kids he would coach and teach.
Starting March 11, 1996 and on every morning since, Bonfigli has gone to Mass and prayed the rosary. Every morning he reads the words on three laminated Holy Cards. Before every class, and he teaches five a day in world history, Bonfigli and his class say a prayer.
“The Blessed Mother is taking care of me and I am taking care of her children,” said Bonfigli, who is childless.
In the spring of 2007, Cardinal Newman needed a basketball coach and teacher for that fall. Newman athletic director Paul Cronin called Jerry Bonfigli, Tom’s brother. Jerry Bonfigli had coached Cronin when he played football at Piner. The pair had become close. Did Jerry Bonfigli know of anyone? “How about my brother?” Jerry Bonfigli asked.
“I grew up with the Bonfiglis and to me they were sacred people,” Cronin said. “I didn’t think we could get him.”
Would the high school that fired Bonfigli re-hire him? It helped that Bonfigli was clean and sober and had a 225-120 record at Justin-Siena. Newman president Mike Truesdell, principal Graham Rutherford and Cronin all asked Bonfigli about his alcoholism.
“Tom said he wasn’t drinking and would not drink,” Cronin said. “Tom is one of the most honest people I know. I took his word for it.”
Newman hired Bonfigli in 2007. The Cardinals were 18-11 that season, a performance that still amazes Cronin.
“Tom did the best coaching job I have ever seen by any coach in any sport,” Cronin said. “Before Tom took over, there were some gym classes that would have been competitive with that team. But he won league.”
Bonfigli said he didn’t feel awkward returning. He felt welcomed. Even though Newman was 28-8 the year before and made it to state, the program was not healthy.
“Things were in such disarray,” Bonfigli said. “I tried to get back to old-fashioned coaching. Place value on teamwork. We needed to get back to the way the culture was.”
The situation wasn’t stressful for Bonfigli. He knew real stress. He lost his dad when he was 18. His stepson was killed by a commuter train in 1996. His wife, Norma Jean, died of a brain aneurysm 28 days after they were married in 2006.
Bonfigli has compiled a 151-37 record in the six years since his return, including five NBL titles.
“Tom is one of the most resilient people I know,” Cronin said.
Bonfigli appreciated the compliment but credits his faith for his resiliency. Bonfigli is not proselytizing. He’s not claiming his path is the only path.
“People come by sobriety in different ways,” he said. “I was a Catholic who lost his way. It could be the Bible for someone else. A friend of mine gathers his strength from the people at his (AA) meetings.”
If his story shines a light for someone in need, that’s enough for him. He has chaired AA meetings and speaks openly to his players if they ask about alcoholism.
“I have a clear eye,” he said, “because I respect the disease.”
The disease has no cure. He must be ever-vigilant. If Bonfigli is tempted, he recites the Serenity Prayer.
“Winning Saturday is important,” Bonfigli said, “but it’s not the most important thing.”
His players don’t ask what that means. They know. Sports is to be remembered, savored. But there are many games. They all end in a matter of hours.
But a human life turns into weeks and those weeks turn into years and here sits Tom Bonfigli at 59, having done the hard work to get where he always wanted to be.
To be excited about tomorrow. Just like the teenagers he coaches.
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.