By Chris Bernhardt | Hernando TodayIt was the early '80s, still very much within Springstead's formative years.
Published: December 9, 2012
Published: December 9, 2012
Booster Stadium, the Eagles' familiar on-campus football home, didn't yet exist, leaving the team to play on a crudely carved out field.
The players didn't even have benches on which to sit. So Don Vendrone – a carpenter by trade – decided to make them.
While his eldest son, Donald, started at quarterback for the Eagles from 1982-83, Vendrone opted to help with the chain gang on the sidelines.
"They were short one night and Bob Levija, he was the football coach at the time, needed someone," Vendrone said. "I nominated myself to help get the crew together and I've done it ever since."
On Nov. 16, the night Springstead hosted Ocala-Vanguard in a regional quarterfinal, Levija – now the school's athletic director – presented Vendrone with a plaque.
It commemorated Vendrone's years of service to the football program, a 30-year tenure that reached its conclusion when the Eagles' season ended that night.
"It was so much of a relief that every year, (the chain gang) was all taken care of," Levija said. "He and his group do a professional job.
"He's done it for a long time, and we really appreciate what he's done. We're going to miss him."
The feeling is mutual. But for the 75-year-old, retired for the past seven years, the time was right to walk away.
"Thirty years is enough, don't you think?" Vendrone said. "I want to watch my grandson play now.
"It's in my blood. I like doing it. You get to meet the kids. You get to meet a lot of people."
When Vendrone and his wife of 53 years, Marlene, arrived in Spring Hill, their oldest daughter had already graduated from high school and moved on to USF.
Their other daughter, Michelle, was a senior and spent her final prep season as captain of the Lady Eagle girls basketball and softball squads.
Donald was a freshman at the time, participating in football, basketball and baseball.
Another son, Jason, would eventually split his high school years between Springstead and Central.
It makes sense, then, that Vendrone developed a strong connection with the school.
Between his own carpentry skills and his connections in the building business, his fingerprints are all over Springstead's athletic facilities.
He helped sheetrock the football press box. He hung doors in the weight room. He oversaw the construction of a multi-purpose building at the baseball field, which houses a press box, concession stand, storage area and bathrooms – and did it for free.
Vendrone did similar work at what is now the Freedom Field Complex, the longtime base of West Hernando Little League off Deltona Boulevard.
He started coaching there in 1982, when his son Jason began to play baseball. He played a major role in building that facility into its current form, including the on-site batting cages which he owned for many years.
Even as his son outgrew the league, Vendrone continued to coach up until a few seasons ago, when health issues finally forced him out.
"Just being with the kids, teaching them how to play baseball, I enjoyed it a lot," Vendrone said. "A lot of people wanted me to coach their kids because I didn't have kids on the team. I wouldn't play favorites.
"I miss it. I still go down now and then to watch."
That willingness to stick around and remain involved, even with his own children well into adulthood, is a unique quality embodied by Vendrone.
"I think it's great for our sense of community," said Bill Vonada, Springstead's head football coach before stepping down Friday. "Certainly we're not the youngest school in the county, but that's something that's always been a struggle in Spring Hill and Springstead.
"Hernando (High) has been established for so long. It's been a struggle to build a sense of community (at Springstead). That adds to a program, absolutely."
Vonada once played football for the Eagles with Vendrone's oldest son, and had grown accustomed to seeing Vendrone at home games during his 15 seasons as head coach.
"It'll be a little odd next year looking at the visiting sideline and not seeing him there," Vonada said. "He's such a dependable guy. He's been a fixture for so long.
"He's a very personable guy. He's a guy you feel comfortable talking to. Any time you have someone who has dedicated that much time to your program, you have to respect that."
Vendrone reflected on another member of the current Springstead coaching staff, defensive coordinator Mike Garofano, who he once saw play for the Eagles.
There are many more athletes, coaches and others connected to the game who he has encountered in his three decades doing his part on many a fall Friday night.
"There are a lot of good memories," Vendrone said. "I can't pick one or the other. I just had a good time."
He has 11 grandchildren, many spread throughout the county's schools over the years. Jason's son, Trevor, will enter his freshman year at Springstead next fall.
Vendrone noted his family, particularly his wife, has always provided support. He has gotten his sons, son-in-law and a grandson to help out with the chains.
Andy Thomas has been a part of the crew for 20 years, while Augustine DiBenedetto and Tommy Dwyer Sr. have also been consistent helpers.
No one is sure who will work the chains at Booster Stadium going forward. No one has had to think about it in a long time.
"I'll probably miss it next year, but I'll go to some of the games," Vendrone said. "You do something for that long you're bound to miss it.
"I'm just happy I could do it, that God gave me the strength to do it all the time. And I want to see my grandson play baseball for Springstead. Maybe I'll see that this year."
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