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Open Mike Column: Tilley a good fit for Eden

Eden fourth-year head coach Chuck Tilley speak to his team in a game earlier this season. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)

Call it the right time, the right place, the right situation; Chuck Tilley came on to the scene at Eden when the Raiders’ football program and its players needed him most. The qualities brought, lessons taught and style of football preached have been a perfect marriage for a program that had been struggling for an identity and looking for a return to past successes.

Eden may represent the small kid in class — as its teams seem to decrease in size yet the school remains large enough to play as a Class B in football, but the Raiders are certainly not the ones getting bullied, thanks in many ways to the former semi-professional lineman turned veteran coach.

Tilley’s helped the program rediscover the grit and blue-collar attitude synonymous with past Raiders teams by bringing a no-nonsense disciplinarian style but with heart and character that is a direct result of his own personal experiences.

“Coaching, the players and the team are kind of a chemical combination, a baking formula — sometimes it’s a good mix; sometimes it’s not. This works,” said Tilley, who also headed programs at Cheektowaga from 1996 to 2001 and Tonawanda (2002-07). “At my other schools, they bought into what I was doing and we did do well too, but I wound up having to leave for different reasons.”

Tilley squeezes the most out of each of his players on a roster that began with about 30 in his first season four years ago and over the past two has dwindled into the low 20s. His players are willing to give back to him all that he provides in both football and life knowledge with their effort and passion.

They’ve rewarded him with four consecutive trips to the Section VI playoffs, the last three years despite playing among a competitive field that compromises the most teams in any of the Western New York classifications. Four years ago, with his biggest and most talented team, the Raiders reached the C finals at Ralph Wilson Stadium and fell just short of a title.

This year may be the most impressive stand collectively made by Tilley, his assistant coaches and players. With a team of few senior starters and missing its star running back Alex Smythe the past three games, Eden finished off an impressive 6-1 regular season and a second B South division title in the past three seasons.

Among the biggest of wins came in Week Six when the Raiders went down to Pioneer in a first-place battle and beat the defending division champions 22-20 in a gutsy team effort. In 2010, Eden did the same in a regular season finale at Western New York power Lackawanna with a share of the division title and a playoff berth on the line.

“Our team has great character,” junior fullback and linebacker Garrett DiStefano said after Eden’s 8-7 win over Southwestern in its regular season finale. “We’re a proud team. We’re small but we’re fast and strong. We don’t let anyone push us around.”

DiStefano and his teammates would admit much of that attitude has been instilled by their coach. He’s the man that they’ve come to take their lead from on and off the field. They couldn’t have found a better role model.

“I knew when the district hired him that we would be receiving a hardworking, dedicated football enthusiast, who will teach his athletes to love and respect the game and everything that comes with being a student-athlete,” said Eden athletics director Marisa Fallacaro, who also got to know Tilley while she coached at Cheektowaga where he is a history teacher.

Besides being an experienced teacher of the game, having also served as the offensive line coach at Canisius College, a former player at Brockport State College and with the Buffalo Gladiators, Tilley is an exemplary father of four and husband.

Those around the program have gotten to know his twin 16-year-old sons, Kyle, who has Down Syndrome, and Justin, who has Autism. The two have become a fixture around the team. Kyle is the team manager and an inspiration to many of the players. They both also attend the junior varsity games with their father, many times are at the varsity games with their mother, Gloria, watching their dad coach and their peers play and even make it to practices once or twice a week.

“I think it has to do with my sons, too,” Tilley said. “I think they like and enjoy working with Kyle. They see me working with my son, bringing my two boys to the JV games. I think their parents probably talk about, ‘hey, look at coach Tilley, he’s got those two young boys he takes care of.’”

“Along with coach Tilley’s knowledge and passion for the game comes his family,” Fallacaro said. “His son, Kyle, (who’s a student at Eden) thinks he can accomplish anything and I believe that attitude stems from his dad. That is the same attitude his football team has.”

He’s a such a commendable figure as a father that he left his last head coaching job at Tonawanda, where he won a division title and was frequently a playoff team during his six years, because he believed the travel there and back home from his home in Angola was taking away from his family time.

Tilley coached in Tonawanda through the 2007 season and quickly latched on as an assistant with Lake Shore before being hired a year later at Eden.

Right away, you could see the difference. He brought in a specific offense based primarily on deception that would work with the lower numbers and instilled a commitment to excellence and preciseness in all that his players would do. He and defensive coordinator Lee Leavell also make sure there are never players hanging their heads when in the rare occasion that the Raiders are not doing well.

“There’s a lot of discipline in what we do that we get from our coach,” DiStefano said. “He makes sure that we keep our heads together and keep everything perfect. When we make a mistake, he lets us know and we try to fix it and not let it happen again.”

Always an advocate for his program and players, who doesn’t mind expressing that, Tilley doesn’t want to just rest on the laurels of the recent successes of the program. He hopes to have a few players from North Collins in the near future to help his team’s numbers and ability to prepare for games and would like to see the grass field at Eden be renovated into a turf complex befitting a first-class program.

But first and foremost, he wants to be building character among the young men he, and his family, spend so much time around during the fall.

“It’s nice that we win football games, but it’s going to be even nicer 20 years down the road when these guys are good husbands and fathers,” Tilley said. “If all they get from me is football, I failed.”

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