WOONSOCKET – Please refrain from labeling Carnell Henderson the “interim” athletic director at Woonsocket High.
“Just filling in,” smiles the varsity head football coach. “For the most part, I’m next man up.”
Such a declaration comes last Friday while seated in his vice principal’s office. His attire is a telltale sign that it’s the final school day before February vacation – black polo shirt with “Woonsocket football” emblazoned upon it and warm-up pants that are distinctly and appropriately shaded maroon.
It’s also the last work day of what’s been a long and somber week for the many folks who were touched by George Nasuti, the late Woonsocket AD who poured his heart and soul into the athletic programs under his supervision.
A private celebration of Nasuti’s life took place Saturday morning at St. James Baptist Church, perhaps three blocks from Barry Field, his home away from home. Through a series of songs and touching, emotional reflections, this proud Villa Novan was remembered as just that. The public will be afforded a chance to do the same on Saturday, March 1 at WHS, the time still to be announced.
There are some who believe everyone is replaceable. Yet when you start to process just how many hats Nasuti wore and what his work schedule encompassed, you realize that trying to fill his shoes is going to require some time and serious evaluation.
“The manual is that we lost the manual; that’s the harsh reality. George made that position as seamless as possible,” said Henderson. “The reality is that we’re going to have to make it work, but I don’t know if we know what that looks like right now.”
Nasuti will be dearly missed, an assertion that goes without saying. As the city seeks to pick up the pieces, it falls on people like Henderson to steer the ship in the best direction possible.
What Henderson found out during the first few days of his newfound duties is that Nasuti’s take-charge approach and willingness to have his hands involved in every single facet pertaining to athletics enabled the rest of the department to operate smoothly. Coaches were allowed to focus exclusively on the task at hand because Nasuti took care of all the pertinent details.
Henderson shared a few examples of fires that Nasuti likely would have put out without breaking stride. Last Monday, he saw the cheerleading squad patiently waiting in the high school foyer. The bus to get them to an event had not yet arrived. Quickly, Henderson retreated to his office and phoned the school department’s transportation company, Durham School Services.
Within minutes, the problem was solved as Henderson had in his possession the bus schedule for the next two weeks.
“Suddenly you’re thrown in that situation,” said Henderson. “There’s no time to think. You have to react.”
A few days later, Henderson was reminded about making sure there would be a police detail for Woonsocket’s boys’ basketball game against La Salle at Saravia Gymnasium.
“Those are the little things that you don’t know or wouldn’t know,” he cited. “Those are the things George knew from doing it so long.
“With his absence only being a week removed, you see the magnitude of the things he’s done,” Henderson continued. “I think when you look at that, I don’t think there’s going to be any one person who’s going to replace that.”
The irony is that the idea of Henderson serving as a temporary caretaker of Woonsocket athletics had been discussed with principal Dr. Lynn Bedard when last Monday, Henderson received a message to report to the McFee Administrations Building for a meeting requested by schools superintendent Giovanna Donoyan.
All parties were well aware of what had happened to Nasuti. They also knew that even if he was able to beat whatever his body and mind were fighting, the recovery time figured to be pretty lengthy.
Henderson didn’t give a moment’s thought to the load he was being asked to shoulder. “I thought it was a natural fit, me just being around him a lot and knowing some of the intricacies of what goes on in athletics. I thought it would be the most doable thing.”
The equation changed Tuesday night upon learning the news that Nasuti had passed away while surrounded by his loved ones at Rhode Island Hospital. His untimely death officially nixed the contingency plan of keeping Woonsocket athletics up to speed until Nasuti received proper clearance to resume his duties.
“Being right before the vacation, we figured we would have the time to brainstorm and see how we would move forward with the hopes that you have him to lean on and guide you in that direction. Not having that right now is huge,” a soft-spoken Henderson declared. “This is something you don’t prepare for.”
Nasuti took what was a part-time position “with full-time work” and succeeded in keeping Woonsocket athletic schedules, transports, etc. humming. He had a firm grip on the entire process, the result of over three decades in the city’s school system.
“Everywhere you turned, it seemed he had his hands in something,” Henderson pointed out.
In Henderson’s case, he will not have to fight the good fight alone. Numerous colleagues, faculty members and coaches have expressed they’re willing to lend their services during this transition period. He says that upper administration has some ideas to provide him some relief from his vice-principal duties so he can maintain a strong voice in athletics.
Those are all short-term fixes. While the circumstances surrounding Nasuti’s death are still fresh and raw, the all-important conversation of who is going to serve as the permanent athletic director is one that needs to take place sooner rather than later.
Along that train of thought, Henderson was asked if could see himself becoming Nasuti’s successor providing all the right pieces fell into place. On many levels, it would be appropriate: Henderson was a star athlete at Woonsocket before returning to his alma mater as a vice principal and football coach.
“If we can make it work, then it’s doable. I would definitely put my best foot forward for the school district that I have the utmost respect for and the community I’m from. It would be an honor,” Henderson said. “I would definitely be the one to put my hand in the air and say, ‘Whatever is needed, I’m there.’ I have no problem with that.”
For Henderson, this coming vacation week figures to be unique. He probably would have made an appearance or two at Woonsocket High, but with winter sports winding down and spring sports right around the corner, there’s plenty that needs tending to.
“For now, I have to be cognizant of everything that’s going on in the department. That’s how you keep it collective and tight. George did a great job of doing that,” Henderson said.
Channeling his inner Nasuti, Henderson sounded just like his former colleague and dear friend upon saying, “At the end of the day, you have to know that we’re serving kids. In order to try and fulfill that duty, we need to put our best foot forward.
“We’re going to do a great job of working together because we owe it to each other to make it work because George made it work for us,” Henderson delved further. “He wanted things to be better, and that still has to happen.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03