By Mark Behan – April 4, 2013
Following in the footsteps of his namesake and late father, Dr. Robert Fitzgerald Jr. is a hall of famer.
The longtime Methuen High wrestling coach was recently inducted into the New England Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was honored with three others during a ceremony in Providence, RI, and joins a select group enshrined in the hall.
“It meant a great deal to me to be honored by my peers. There are not many inductees of the New England Wrestling Hall of Fame,” said Fitzgerald. “I grew up around this (wrestling) so to end up at the pinnacle of it is a tremendous feeling. It permanently recognizes my accomplishments and contributions to the sport of wrestling.”
Fitzgerald’s father, Robert P. Fitzgerald Sr., for whom the Lawrence football stadium is named, was a Lawrence Hall of Fame coach in football and wrestling. His influence gave Bob Jr. the impetus to coach.
“My dad was my hero and I always wanted to be like him,” said Fitzgerald, who grew up in Methuen and Lawrence. “He helped so many student-athletes and was a tremendous advocate for the underdog and I wanted to do the same.”
Fitzgerald, 49, is principal of the Lakeview Junior High School in Dracut. He and his family reside in Methuen. Married to wife Julia, the couple has two children, Robert and Scarlett. He is the son of Barbara Fitzgerald.
As Methuen High’s coach from 1985 to 2001, Fitzgerald shepherded the Rangers to 310 wins and a state title during his illustrious 17-year career. His grapplers captured 11 individual state championships and two New England crowns.
At 5′-11″ and a rock-solid 240 pounds, Fitzgerald, who has won New England titles in power lifting, appears fit enough to crunch or pin opponents as he did during his collegiate days at Boston College. A member of the 1985 Eagles’ football team, which won the Cotton Bowl, Fitzgerald played with Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie. Fitzgerald captained the wrestling team at BC and was a Catholic University All-American. He also shined in the classroom, as he earned the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Student-Athlete and was a Rhodes Scholar finalist.
Coaching in the rugged Merrimack Valley Conference (MVC), Fitzgerald relished “the competition with the great MVC coaches.” He recalled the first time his squad defeated powerhouse Lowell as a memorable moment. But Fitzgerald speaks as fondly about the camaraderie fostered and friendships forged as he does the state championship title in 1997.
“There are the great matches and championship teams,” said Fitzgerald, who graduated from Central Catholic. “But I tend to remember the daily practices, getting to know the wrestlers, (and) having to bring the kids down to the YMCA to sweat off the last couple of pounds. (I remember) the out-of-state trips and how much the kids looked forward to them and remember to this day.”
He cited the strong relationships he has built with former wrestlers, noting Rob Niceforo, the coach at Lawrence High who guided the Lancers to a state title, and the many friends he has met through wrestling. Among those is lifelong best friend Tony Sarkis, Greater Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical’s wrestling and football coach, who grew up wrestling with Fitzgerald and penned his Hall of Fame endorsement letter.
Many of Fitzgerald’s wrestlers were the first in their family to graduate from high school and to further their education in college.
“(Helping them) is my biggest accomplishment by far,” said Fitzgerald. “I always hoped the sport would help them develop character and habits that would make them better people.”
Fitzgerald’s student-athletes not only developed character, among many traits, but they also developed into talented mat men – to the tune of 310 wins. And those victories were not shrouded in mystery.
“One of my wrestlers once told a reporter, ‘Fitz’s secret is simple: we work harder than everyone else.’ That has always been my M.O.,” said the Dracut principal. “Work your butt off; make sure you are getting the most out of what you have. The harder you work at something, the harder it is to surrender.”
Fitzgerald was a fanatic about conditioning and believed in “incredibly demanding workouts.” He would travel to Pennsylvania to learn “cutting-edge techniques,” which he would employ with his teams.
“I wanted to make sure as both a wrestler and a coach everything had been done to put us in a position to be successful,” Fitzgerald said.
Looking back on his hall-of-fame career, Fitzgerald remembers where it all began.
“I started wrestling at the Lawrence YMCA. There was a great tradition there,” Fitzgerald said. “I am glad I was able to carry it on. I am also extremely proud to carry on my father’s legacy. My dad would have been very, very proud.”
Mark Behan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org