Mike Ambrosio’s second season as Colonie High School’s varsity football coach was going to end with a big thud, or so it seemed.
It was the second quarter in a Class AA semifinal game at Shenendehowa, and his Garnet Raiders trailed the state’s No. 3-ranked team by four touchdowns.
“He [Ambrosio] made you believe,” said R.J. Harvey, then a sophomore running back and safety on that 1998 Colonie edition. “That game was a testament.”
That game to this day stands as one of the greatest comebacks in Section II playoff history.
Colonie trailed 27-0.
Colonie won 47-33, and advanced to the first of three Super Bowls with Ambrosio at the helm.
Ambrosio, who guided Colonie’s varsity for 14 seasons through 2011, died Monday at the age of 64 after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow from a neighbors’ driveway.
“I remember halftime and his little speech,” said Kevin Halburian, who knew Ambrosio for 32 years and served as one his football assistant coaches. “‘One play at a time. One drive at a time. Chip away. We’ve got a shot.'”
That was Ambrosio. Always upbeat and always pushing the positive, even while playing a team Colonie had lost to a few weeks before (20-6) and was trailing again by a pile of points.
“They [Shenendehowa] were a juggernaut,” Harvey said. “He said, ‘Keep fighting.'”
“He wasn’t a yeller or a screamer, but when he talked, he got his point across,” Halburian said of the married father of two.
Colonie strung together 34 points after Shenendehowa built its big first-half lead on one of Devon DeLuke’s three touchdown runs. Colonie’s rally included a 32-yard field goal by Greg Kowalski in the final second of the opening half that made it 27-16.
“Considering the situation and the importance of the game, it ranks up there as one of the all-time greats,” said Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk football coach and state football coordinator Gary VanDerzee, who was at the game. “For the players, it was a lifetime experience. You don’t remember the test in math class at your 30th, 40th, 50th reunion. That’s what they’ll talk about.”
Harvey kick-started Colonie’s comeback with a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and by the time the contest was through he had totaled four touchdowns and two interceptions. Both of those picks came late in the fourth quarter, and his 85-yard scoring return created the final margin.
“That was my breakout,” said Harvey, who as a junior was named The Daily Gazette Offensive Player of the Year. “That was an unbelievable experience. Everybody had their best game. Everyone rose to the occasion. It was fun.”
Not so much for the Plainsmen.
“That was four years of frustration coming out,” Shenendehowa football coach Brent Steuerwald said that late-October 1998 night. “Their seniors never beat this group. They were more determined than we were.”
“The kids executed,” Ambrosio said after that game. “They made plays they didn’t at the beginning of the season. Tonight, big plays happened.”
Harvey said Ambrosio was one of those coaches who players would go the extra distance for.
“Because of his actions. Because of the way he was,” Harvey said. “I wanted to score 2,000 touchdowns for him.”
“He never forgot that it was about kids, and he was there to teach and be a role model,” VanDerzee said.
Ambrosio took a leave as Colonie’s varsity coach in 2008 (he worked with the freshman team) in order to watch his son Mark play his senior football season at Shaker. Ambrosio came back afterward for three more varsity seasons before shifting his focus to Colonie’s freshman team.
“He was a great family man,” Halburian said of the Colonie physical eduction instructor from 1985-2017. “Great husband. Great father. With him it was family first. The ironic thing is he wanted to coach next season with his son at Shaker [Mark is the freshman coach there]. He was thinking about doing that.”
Ambrosio, who’s varsity teams went 66-62, was more than an Xs and Os guy while working with young men.
“He taught kids about teamwork. Commitment to excellence. He instilled in the kids things they could take into life,” Halburian said. “He preached life.”
“I can’t tell how much of an influence he was on my life,” said Harvey, who works as a video assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The life lessons I learned from him are things I do not forget to this day.”
Ambrosio also coached wrestling, track and lacrosse at Colonie. An athletic scholarship fund has been created in his honor.
“He was a real good dude,” said Halburian, who coaches varsity baseball at Colonie. “Always had a smile on his face. Never had a bad word for anyone.”
Only good words, to which so many young athletes responded to and, like that night years ago at Shenendehowa, accomplished wonderful things.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Jim Schiltz at 518-395-3143, [email protected] or @jim_schiltz on Twitter.
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Categories: High School Sports, Sports