The 1974 football season was a dud for Bill Schwab. He had injured his shoulder, and the St. Charles High School football team was coming off a 2-win season after head coach Leo Vitali suffered a heart attack and took the year off to rest.
Schwab was devastated he couldn't play, but the injury turned into a key life lesson from his beloved coach.
"What he taught me was to never give up on your dream or goals," recalled Schwab, an author and entrepreneur now living near Reno, Nevada. "I got knocked to the ground, but you get back up. That's what he taught me. I could do other things and I could achieve other goals. It wasn't the end because I was injured. I decided to never stop learning."
Across St. Charles, people shared remembrances of Vitali and his effect on students, athletes and the community. He taught at St. Charles High School from 1965 through 1991, coaching football and guiding the boys golf team to several state titles.
Vitali died Tuesday at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield at the age of 87.
"He was certainly an icon in our community. There's no question about it," said St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina, who also served on the St. Charles High School faculty with Vitali, who was inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1983. "He'll go down as one of the finest coaches in St. Charles (history)."
Rogina said Vitali also taught Driver's Education at the high school, and was respected, passionate and intense on sidelines and in life.
"He was a gregarious, fun-loving guy. Leo never met anyone that he didn't like," Rogina recalled. "He had a good camaraderie about him. People flocked around him. We'll miss him dearly. He was an institution."
Lisa Small, one of Vitali's five grown children who now works as Associate Superintendent of Instruction at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, said Vitali's father wanted him to be a coal miner instead of going to college. But a miner's strike prompted Vitali to help his teacher friend with some coaching duties and he continued his education, earning a football scholarship to Millikin University.
Small said she had many conversations with her dad over the years about that turning point in his life that affected others in positive ways.
"Hard work was extremely important to him. You did your best at what you were doing. That's how he lived," Small said, adding her father traveled to virtually every sporting event for his kids and grandkids. "He won games but that wasn't what it was all about. It was setting goals, making things happen and the winning came as a result."
Visitation will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Moss-Norris Funeral Home, 100 S. Third St., St. Charles. A funeral mass will be held at 11 a.m. St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 6N491 Crane Road, St. Charles.