CLEVELAND, Ohio – A four-year battle with colon cancer took the life of Rhodes baseball and football coach Phillip Gary on Wednesday.
Gary, who was an accomplished math intervention specialist, died at the age of 57.
A couple of days before his final football game on Nov. 5, Gary informed his school athletic director that he would need to take some time off for health reasons. Gary recovered from Stage 4 colon cancer in 2012, but the symptoms returned for the longtime head coach and teacher.
Rhodes athletic director Cheri Dzuro shared that story nearly a month and half later.
“He knew when he left school his days were numbered,” said Dzuro. “He was humorous, passionate and very dedicated. Even to the end he came in every day.”
Gary started coaching football at Rhodes in 2003 and became an assistant baseball coach two years later. Eventually, he took over the baseball team in 2009 left after by current John Hay head coach Tim Hogan.
The baseball team continued to flourish since the program started in 1989. Last year, Gary led the baseball team to a second consecutive Senate Athletic League championships — once against Lincoln West and the other against John Hay.
“He was a great guy and I recommended he take the program because I thought he could keep it at a high level,” Hogan said.
The Rams appeared in every championship game since Gary started as an assistant in 2006. Since 2009, Gary has won four league championships while the four titles went to Lincoln West.
“You could see those guys [at Rhodes] loved him and he loved them,” former Lincoln West coach Tim Casselberry said. “With baseball, it’s kind of a funny thing because it’s laid back, but that wasn’t Phil’s way. He was intense and it carried over to his players.”
Crestwood baseball coach John Bakalar added, “He had a really good team. He was a really good guy, really personal and it’s an unfortunate loss.”
Gary, who is a native of Cleveland, started with the area’s school system in 1994 and coached football at Collinwood as an assistant. Gary left to become the head football coach at Sandusky in 2001 after four seasons as the head coach. He would return to Cleveland to head up the Rhodes program two years later.
Gary was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2012. A year later he returned as head coach. Glenville football coach Ted Ginn Sr. sympathized with Gary after battling pancreatic cancer during the same time. The two shared their thoughts between their football games.
“I was as sick as he was,” Ginn said. “We were both at the sick at the same time and we always talked about how we were blessed to be back coaching football. That was a tough road and I don’t know how we made it through.”
Ginn added, “Gary was very disciplined, stern and strong minded guy. He loved football, loved the discipline of it and loved the kids.”
“He used football to build to children,” Ginn said. “To lose a legend like that in the city that is major.”
Lincoln West football coach and Rhodes teacher Brooks Baird added, “I’ve known Phil for years and it’s very sad. He was a tremendous role model for our students and adults. He’s going to be missed and he’ll be in our thoughts.”
In what would be Gary’s final year, he led the Rams (6-5) to the Senate Athletic League championship in November, but fell to John Hay in overtime, 19-16.
“It was a bittersweet game because we won, but I also know that it was his last game coaching,” John Hay football coach Rodney Decipeda said. He added that before the season finale, he spoke with Gary about his coaching future and noticed his weight loss.
“I think the best way to honor him is to continue his emphasis to make sure we put the players, kids, their benefit first like he always did,” Decipeda said. “With the way we structure things, the policies, advocating and championing for the boys, I think that’s the way to honor him or anyone else.”
Dzuro said Rhodes will pay tribute to Gary during the boys basketball game against Collinwood on Friday. There will also be an opportunity for students and teachers to leave notes.
Arrangements for viewing of Gary will be at Calhoun Funeral Home, 23000 Rockside Road in Bedford Heights (440-232-9758) on Wednesday from 2-6 p.m. and 2-8 p.m. on Thursday.
Family will receive friends on Thursday from 5-8 p.m. Homecoming service will be on Friday at 10 a.m. at Elizabeth Baptist Church, 6114 Francis Avenue in Cleveland (off East 55th by 77). Family visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m.
Interment will be at Evergreen Memorial Park, 5505 Northfield Rd., Bedford, OH 44146. There will be a re-pass at the church following interment.