Though he is on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer, Joe Vito can still remember sitting in his parents’ car as a youngster at the East Rockaway Raiders football team’s first practice, not wanting to play the sport he would grow to love.
“I basically looked out the back window, because I didn’t want to play football,” Vito recalled. “Then, the next week, I started going to practice, and that’s where it all started, my love for football.”
That love blossomed into a decorated career as the head coach of the Roosevelt High School varsity football team, where the East Rockaway resident has compiled a 182-61-2 record to go along with 10 Nassau County championships and four Long Island Class IV titles as he enters his 28th year there. For his impact on and off the field, Vito will be inducted into the Nassau County High School Sports Hall of Fame’s class of 2020.
“I think the most important part is that I’ve been blessed to coach a lot of amazing football players and have had a lot of outstanding coaches,” Vito said, “and it’s because of them that I’m able to get this honor. It’s shared with all those people.”
Vito, 57, was to be inducted in a ceremony in September, but it was postponed until next September because of the coronavirus pandemic. He began playing football with the inaugural East Rockaway Raiders team in 1971 and went on to play for the Rocks in high school. He said Raiders coaches Jerry Chapel and Joseph Carrigan, who became an East Rockaway mayor, were influential in shaping his passion for the sport at an early age. In high school, he said his former coach Tom Forps helped foster that drive, and his guidance helped Vito reach the pinnacle of his profession years later.
East Rockaway Mayor Bruno Romano and the village board honored Vito at its Nov. 19 board meeting and presented him with a citation. Vito said he was proud to have his brothers, Charles and Robert, and his mother, Sue — whom he said is affectionately known as “Mama Vito” — in attendance when the board recognized him.
“East Rockaway is a quaint community, and they’re proud of the accomplishments of their people,” he said. “It’s so nice that they do that.”
In addition to the championships, Vito and his teams have earned many accolades over the years. In 1999 and 2004, they were awarded the Rutgers Cup as the most outstanding team in the county. Additionally, Vito was named The Daily News’s Coach of the Year in 1997, Newsday’s Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2004, the New York Jets Tri-state Coach of the Year in 1999, and he has received the Town of Hempstead’s Make a Difference Award and the Frank McGuire Humanitarian Award, which honors high school coaches whose dedication and skill have had a positive impact on young lives.
One such player Vito had an influence on was Jerone Pettus, who played running back for Roosevelt from 1997 to 2000, and set a county record by rushing for 5,841 yards in high school. Pettus said the honor was overdue for Vito, whom he called a father figure, and added that he deserves it as much for his attitude off the field as he does for his success on it.
“He’s not just a coach,” Pettus said. “He’s a member of so many people’s families because he gives that much love to everyone and gets it in return. As a kid, my father was not around as much as I would have liked him to be, and with Coach Vito being a part of my life, it was easy for me to grow up and learn the lessons that I needed to learn. I think that is really where he shines the brightest.”
At Roosevelt High, Vito is also a phys.-ed. teacher and coaches track and field. Pettus also took part in track and field, and was there when Vito guided the 4-by-100-meter relay team to a state championship. Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Pettus went on to teach phys.-ed. at Alden Terrace School in Elmont, and was a coach at Roosevelt for many years.
Pettus was also selected as a class of 2020 Hall of Famer, and Vito said he was honored to be inducted alongside his former running back.
“I believe he changed the tide of our football program and taught our kids how to win, and from then on we’ve had a pretty successful run,” Vito said, noting that the team still maintains a run-heavy offense two decades later.
Johnnie Akins, who played running back and linebacker under Vito from 2011 to 2013, said the coach helped his players grow and supported them personally by helping families who needed assistance keep their lights on, or by paying for food and haircuts for players in need. Akins said he strives to be “Joe Vito 2.0,” becoming a phys.-ed. teacher and football coach at Ithaca College, where he strives to instill many of the lessons and values that his former coach taught him.
“I’m just happy that he came into my life because I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for him,” Akins said. “I don’t know if I’d be into teaching or coaching. He’s like a father figure to me, and I’m glad he has been recognized for the great person he is.”
Vito is also president of the Nassau County High School Football Coaches Association; on the executive board of the New York State High School Football Coaches Association, for which he was a president; and an advisory board member of the Nassau chapter of the National Football Foundation and the College Hall of Fame Inc.
“I hope that I impacted young people’s lives, and I hope that I taught them as much as they’ve taught me,” Vito said. “My whole life really is about trying to make a difference in kids’ lives. That’s it. That’s my mission.”