NEW ROCHELLE — All have been to the top. Mountain climbers, in their own way.
One, the most famous of them, plummeted from there.
But Wednesday night at the Glen Island Harbour Club, former two-time All-Pro and NFL Super Bowl champion Ray Rice stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Kent Washington, Joan Spedafino, Lou DeMello and David Sollazzo, having reascended.
The five were inducted together into the Westchester Sports Hall of Fame.
To Rice, the former New Rochelle High, Rutgers University and Baltimore Ravens star running back, the honor reflected much more than his 6,180 yards and 37 touchdowns rushing and another 3,034 yards and six scores off 359 receptions he compiled as a Raven.
Rice, who as a 5-foot-8 football player, always seemed to defy the odds, had many supporters at the dinner, among them former New Rochelle football coach Lou DiRienzo, whom Rice described as a father figure.
Also on hand were his siblings; his “rock,” his mother, Janet; grandparents who came up from South Carolina; his wife, Janay, and their children, daughter, Rayven, 9, and son, Jaylen, 5.
Rice described Janay as “probably the strongest individual I know.”
And he didn’t shy from referring to the controversy involving her that resulted in his career ending in 2014 after six NFL seasons.
Rice, 34, who described being deeply involved now in non-profit work with at-risk children, was arrested that year on an assault charge after he was videotaped hitting his then-fiancee in a casino elevator during a drunken argument.
Rice, who spoke Wednesday of society’s tendency to “throw away, rather than salvage,” said the fight with Janay has put an “asterisk” on his career.
But, he said his induction “sends a different message on taking a deeper look.”
“There’s nothing like being recognized when you come home. There’s no place like home,” said Rice, who thanked the Hall’s selection committee for considering him.
And it did so by clearly weighing more than his stats vs. the elevator incident.
In addition to his non-profit work, Rice frequently speaks to groups about domestic violence.
“Overall, as a person, what I’ve been through and how I came out on the other end and am still making a difference in the community, I think that’s what the Hall of Fame is all about,” he said.
“That road, I would call, you know, stumbling and going down and finding your way back, was more of a Hall of Fame approach to me.”
“I know for a fact my worst moment saved my life,” he added. “I don’t love that that happened. But the outcome of it – where I am now, mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and what I’m able to do to preach a real message to young adults and our future generations – I’m definitely in a way better place than, you know, getting fantasy points (playing football) because that word fantasy is something that is not real.”
Washington, a trailblazer
Like Rice, Washington grew up honing his game in New Rochelle.
But in Washington’s case, the game was basketball.
His talent took him from the local Boys Club to all-conference and all-county honors at New Rochelle High, to Southhampton College, where the point guard scored 1,082 points and set the school all-time assists record.
But that was only the start.
Washington was drafted by the LA Lakers in 1977 and, after being cut, took his game overseas in an historic move.
After his college team played against pros in a tournament in then-communist Poland and Washington was named the tournament’s MVP, a Polish coach extended an offer for him to play professionally for him after college
In doing so, Washington became the first American basketball player to play professionally behind the Iron Curtin, as well as first African-American athlete to play pro in any sport inside the communist bloc.
Washington, now 66, gained hero status in Poland, earning league MVP honors one year and finishing twice as runner-up for the award.
Washington averaged more than 20 points a game for the four-and-a-half seasons he played in Poland and later played professionally for 10 years in Sweden, where he also gained MVP honors.
“I played for the passion and enjoyment. Personal accolades are a thing that just happened. But I’m fortunate that I played well enough to be an inductee. It means a lot,” said Washington, who attributed his success to his obsessive practice habits and to growing up in a city that had the supportive programs and people to help him pursue his sport.
State Hall of Famer Spedafino gains local honor
Hours before giving birth to her son, Angelo, Joan Spedafino was coaching her Rye Neck girls softball team.
Two weeks later, Angelo was a passenger on the team bus as the Panthers headed to play in the 1996 state high school softball playoffs.
Such was and is the former Mamaroneck High three-sport (field hockey, basketball and softball) star’s devotion to softball.
Spedafino referred to one of her favorite sports movies, Kevin Costner’s “For Love of the Game,” in explaining her long tenure in the sport.
Spedafino, a fourth-grade teacher who graduated from Pace University in 1985, will start her 37th year this spring as Rye Neck’s head softball coach, her resume bulging with 546 wins, 18 league titles, five Section 1 titles and two state regional championships.
Wednesday’s induction was her second this year. In the spring, Spedafino, currently the fourth winningest high school softball coach all-time in the state, became a member of the New York State Softball Hall of Fame,
She described that as “very special,” but indicated her local induction was a bit more special since so many friends, including many of her fellow Rye Neck teachers, some former athletic directors and other former and current staffers, as well as other coaches and umpires, and players from different eras, were in attendance.
The mother of four and grandmother of six, who scored a then-Westchester-record 1,182 points playing basketball for Mamaroneck, also won more than 150 out of the 200 games she coached as Rye Neck’s girls basketball coach.
Spedafino, who followed her youth sports coach mom into coaching and whose husband, Frank, has been her assistant for the bulk of her softball coaching career, said, “Working with children is the greatest gift in the world and coaching is icing on the cake.”
Soccer player DeMello inducted for hoops prowess
Lou DeMello also has a decades-long coaching resume that followed his own success as an athlete.
DeMello, a Mount Vernon High soccer star in the late 1970s, still holds both that school’s single-game soccer scoring record with six goals and season scoring record with 36 goals. His two goals helped fuel a 3-0 upset of Arlington for the Section 1 soccer title.
DeMello went on to play soccer for Manhattan College and was an assistant soccer coach at St. John’s University for two years.
But it’s on the hardwood that he has developed his name.
DeMello, who played a couple of years of high school basketball, became an assistant basketball coach at Mount Vernon out of college before taking over at now-closed Rice High School in Harlem.
He helped that Catholic school become a state champion and, moreover, a national powerhouse.
DeMello, who was a Mount Vernon coach when the Knights won states, also helped lead Masters School in Dobbs Ferry to a state private school title.
But DeMello, who currently serves as basketball director at Masters, is perhaps even better known for his work with AAU club basketball programs.
Fueled simply by what he called “selfish” desire to help his own daughter and son, he developed the Westchester Hawks program, which started with three teams and expanded to more than 100 over a 14-year run.
More than 250 players from the program went on to play collegiately and some professionally, with players in the NBA, WNBA and overseas.
In addition to his work at Masters, DeMello is currently co-director of the East Coast Panthers youth program out of northern Westchester and is a coach with the elite New York City Rens.
“I’ve spent 35 years in youth sports. The most rewarding thing is helping kids chase their dreams,” said DeMello, who’s also in the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he added. “I never worked a day in my life.”
Sollazzo joins father, former college coach in Hall
David Sollazzo grew up playing Harrison football.
An all-state lineman (class of 1973), he went on to play college football on a full scholarship for The Citadel, where former Harrison star and future Westchester Sports Hall of Fame member Ralph Friedgen coached.
On Wednesday, Sollazzo, who went on to coach at multiple colleges, joined Friedgen, as well as his late father, longtime Harrison recreation director and former Harrison High football player Frank P. Sollzzo, Sr., in the Hall.
The reasons were clear.
Sollazzo, who’s currently coaching his son, Christopher, at Farmington High School in Connecticut, enjoyed huge success on the collegiate level.
He was defensive line coach at The Citadel during a decade in which it won the Southern Conference Championship, got the top ranking in the country among Division I-AA teams and twice made the Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Sollazzo also coached at Georgia Tech, Villanova, UMass and Maryland.
At Maryland, he again served under Friedgen for a decade and it was a big decade for the Terrapins, who made seven bowl appearances and won an ACC championship.
Sollazzo, who called his father the “most respected man in town,” said it was “really, really special” following him into the Hall almost 30 years to the day after his dad’s induction.
He also pointed to Friedgen’s influence on him, saying he tried to copy the coach’s “attention for detail” and Friedgen’s insistence his athletes “play hard and smart.”
“We were absolutely on point, technically and fundamentally. He also taught me to demand excellence,” he said.
Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey.