The only head coach the Laurentian Voyageurs women's soccer team has ever known, Rob Gallo has experienced the mingling of his passion for a sport that he loves, with the life-changing moments that are part and parcel of a span of some twenty years.
In reality, the two have played off one another, moulding both the man and the coach that Gallo has become. Last Sunday at the James Jerome Sports Complex, the 58 year old long-time employee of the WSIB (he retires from that career effective January 1st) would walk the sidelines one last time for a home soccer encounter with the Voyageurs.
This wasn't necessarily the master plan when the alumnus of L.U. soccer and a national silver medal winner while working on his Masters at Carleton followed his playing days with an interest in guiding the next generation of young talent.
“I was the type of player who had to work hard for everything,” said Gallo, relaxing at home Sunday evening. “I played hard, I played physically, and I was always a student of the game. I absorbed everything Greg (Zorbas) taught me. I had some luck, working with guys like Mario Anselmo, Gino Pacitto, Feruccio Deni. These guys played in Europe before coming here.”
“You learned to listen. It wasn't just about playing the game, it was about understanding the game.” Success would come early for Gallo, as a coach, lending a helping hand to the city championship and OFSAA qualifying teams at St Charles College in both 1983 and 1984.
A work-related move to Belleville, roughly one year later, would again open some doors, as Gallo served as an assistant coach with Loyalist College and coach Eugene Courtney. He would immerse himself in developing a deeper understanding of the game, taking the words of wisdom from McMaster and national U20 coach Frank Dunlavy very much to heart.
“You're never bigger than the game,” was the thought that Gallo recalled. “Always learn from other people, pick up the best of what you can get from them. That's what I have always remembered.” By the time that 1986 rolled around, this proud member of the Italia Flyers' organization had moved back home, marrying his wife Carole, and beginning the process of raising a family in the early 1990's.
It was time to step away from the game, ever so briefly.
But when a women's club soccer initiative in 1998, spurred on by the likes of Ginette Michel, Pat Pickard and Angelina Rumble, unearthed signs of a sincere interest in vaulting the fledgling program into the OUA ranks, there would be a need for a coach. At the urging of his wife, and despite four young children at home, Gallo dove into the challenge in 1999, as the Voyageurs embarked on a one-year exhibition campaign that gave way to full membership twelve months later.
With the majority of the exhibition encounters remaining competitively close, the Laurentian crew entered their first official campaign with relatively lofty goals. “I had all of these local kids, some who had played rec soccer, but were really good athletes,” Gallo reminisced. “We felt that we had some hope. We felt pretty confident. Then 2000 hit and I think we won two games that year.”
“We realized quickly where we were at. These games were now for points, and there were only ten games and everyone was out to win. We learned some valuable lessons.”
Above all else, however, Gallo points to the 2001 year as the period of time when everything changed.
Sadly, his son Riley was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed to a brain tumour at the tender age of five in 2002. “I wasn't going to come back (to coaching),” explained Gallo. “But it was a group of kids that I had coached that asked me to stay. I knew at that time that it wasn't about the game anymore. After our son passed, those girls were always around our family.”
The entire sequence left an indelible mark on Gallo, both as a man and a coach. “I learned some valuable lessons on a woman's compassion and how they handle a family in distress,” he said. “That day probably changed everything for me in terms of understanding them more as people and less as soccer players.”
In fairness, his entire soccer background, both as a player and a coach, lie within the context of the men's game. This new environment wasn't quite the same. “I had to go through a change,” said Gallo. “I made a lot of them cry (initially). I had always been a taskmaster with the guys, and I learned very quickly that wasn't going to work with the girls.”
“I saw emotion that I wasn't used to. That first year in the OUA, I still pushed them, I was very demanding, but I started to understand slowly what I was dealing with.” And learn he would. By 2002, in just their third year in the league, Gallo and the Voyageurs qualified for the playoffs. Two years later, an absolutely magical season culminated with an appearance in the OUA Final Four.
The Laurentian Voyageurs women's soccer team had arrived.
Since 2008, Gallo and company have never missed the playoffs. “There have been some disappointments along the way, but it's been fun having some really neat successes. It's been exciting, these last few years. We've been in each and every playoff game.”
In 2015, for the first time in program history, the Voyageurs finished in second place, overall, in a very tough East Division, earning a first round playoff bye. These statistical notes will remain etched in L.U. varsity athletics lore, but the memories, for Gallo, will be far more personal.
“It isn't about the game, it's about the person,” he stated. “A lot of people put a lot of trust in you. You are never going to make everyone happy, but you learn to balance that. I've got some unique and very close relationships with kids that I've cut. At the university level, I've not only got a responsibility to try and make them better soccer players, but also to try and prepare them for life.”
Because as Rob Gallo and family know better than most, soccer and life intermingle closely where there is a passion for both.