MAYFIELD — You stop for a moment, greeted by the new sign in blue, crisply painted with white accents, that says “Welcome to Rovito Gym,” with the “Rovito Gym” in gold letters.
Assistant coach Brynn Hlozansky hustles over to the lobby for a moment during practice and cheerfully takes your temperature.
Inside, head coach Eileen Rovito is in her familiar crouch, hands on knees and eyes on her volleyball players.
This doesn’t happen very often, but the Mayfield Central School District dedicated their gym to Eileen and Kevin Rovito on March 31 in a surprise ceremony before a varsity match that wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone who has been around the Rovitos and the Mayfield physical education department since the 1980s.
After 36 years as a Mayfield teacher and 33 as a coach, Eileen, 57, is retiring to devote 100% of her time to Kevin, her 66-year-old husband of 30-plus years who has been suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease since at least 2009.
Coaches try to keep stuff predictable. They like routine. “Control the controllables,” they say. This season has been none of these, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. But for Eileen Rovito, that’s been a daily challenge for a long time now, waking up in the morning and not knowing what the day will bring for Kevin.
So when I asked her on Wednesday morning if she was taking opportunities to stop and smell the roses, knowing this was her last season, she answered:
“That’s my life since my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I’m all about the moment. Every day, we do it, and with the pandemic and volleyball, it’s been the same with these kids.
“What do we have for today? What can we do today? Instead of what can’t we do, let’s figure out what we can do today.
“And that’s how I lead my life these days.”
A Lake George native, Eileen came to Mayfield as a student teacher in 1985 and was hired full-time in 1986. Kevin, from Tupper Lake, started in 1981, taught at Mayfield for 29 years, coached track and field and cross country and inaugurated what has become the Panthers’ highly successful Nordic skiing program.
“It was fun watching the program build, because back then there were no small schools doing Nordic skiing, it was just the bigger schools, the Shenendehowas, the Guilderlands, and little old Mayfield was the one at states,” Eileen said.
“That’s what Kevin used to do, he’d be up at 5 in the morning over here dragging the course. So our PE classes had great trails, because he didn’t do anything halfway. He was that guy.”
Eileen, meanwhile, has won over 300 volleyball matches, kept Mayfield in contention for Section II championships, and took teams as far as the Class D state semifinals in 2015 and 2018.
She also helped out with the girls’ track and softball teams and was a dedicated volunteer at the state championships since they moved to Glens Falls in 2006.
“You can’t say enough about what she’s done,” said Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ volleyball coach Gary Bynon, whose teams have won seven Class A and B state championships since 2002. “Just a solid program year-in and year-out.
“And state-wide, we have over a hundred volunteers every year, and every year, on that Friday, we’re building courts, and Eileen’s there. She’s part of understanding how important it is for this area to have that tournament. And anytime anyone needs anything, Eileen is there.”
The Rovitos’ influence has gone well beyond the volleyball court or the Nordic trails or the track.
As Eileen describes it, the Rovitos, who have two sons in their early 30s, “team-taught” PE for 26 years, their offices separated by a few feet off the main gym.
“That was my office, and that was his office. The two brown doors,” she said, pointing across the gym. “I think just being here and having our kids here and being part of the community is probably the best memory.”
“What Kevin is remembered for by his former students is being the teacher that convinced you that you could accomplish things you previously never even considered attempting,” Hlozansky said during her dedication speech last week.
“As a teacher, Eileen was always focused on creating an atmosphere where all students felt welcome and comfortable. She made every student feel like they were an important part of each class, and was always compassionate to their needs. You could always count on being greeted with a warm smile and hello when you got to the gym.”
“To her, it’s more than a sport,” senior volleyball player Tori Ruliffson said. “It’s a team experience, like a family, and she’s just brought so many good things to our program, with all the hard things in her life, and she just always keeps a positive attitude, loves being here. And it’s obvious she loves working with us and being with us, and we love her back just as much.”
Because of Kevin’s condition, Eileen had been considering retiring for a few years now.
For one thing, she wanted to make sure the program was on solid footing before handing it off to Hlozansky.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, of the over five million people in the U.S. who suffer from the disease, 200,000 are under 65, which qualifies as early onset.
Shortly before Kevin retired in 2009, Eileen said he started to reach out to her for help doing tasks for which he shouldn’t have needed it.
“It wasn’t memory,” she said. “A lot of people think of Alzheimer’s and they think, ‘Oh, you lost your memory.’ Or forgetting things. And with him, it was processing. He taught, and he was a contractor and did a lot of building, and one day he was using a screwdriver backwards, where that was something he could do with his eyes closed.
“So there were little processing things that we didn’t even realize, because he had such good compensating skills. So I think it went undiagnosed for many years.”
While doctors eventually ruled out chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the Rovitos believed that undiagnosed concussions Kevin suffered playing football had some role as a source of his Alzheimer’s.
In the early years after his diagnosis, Kevin spoke at conferences on Alzheimer’s, and the Rovitos went out of their way to make sure he was in the public eye.
“It’s important to be present out here,” Eileen said. “I think a lot of people get dementia and Alzheimer’s, and they get hidden away in the homes, or hidden away in nursing facilities, and people don’t realize how widespread it is.”
The Mayfield volleyball season is scheduled to run through April 30, but postponements and cancellations are common, so you never know what the day will bring.
Eileen gets Kevin up every morning, and if his condition allows, she’ll strap him into an adaptive bike and they’ll get outdoors again.
In the gym, her volleyball kids have warmup jackets with “ROVITO” printed on the back, and, as they have done for a few years now, there are purple ties in the laces of their shoes to promote Alzheimer’s awareness.
One moment of practice is a pep rally, Eileen clapping encouragement, and the next, it’s a ballet class, as she slowly and deliberately demonstrates how a player who was caught between dropping her hands for a bump or raising them for a set can get out of that mess.
It seems like no coincidence that Ruliffson, who will attend SUNY Cortland next year, wants to be a high school teacher.
“It’s a different season because of COVID, but I think for her this is take in the moment, just really enjoy what you’re doing where you’re at, like a live-your-life sort of thing,” she said. “She makes it fun to be here, it’s not just practice, it’s not just show up, drill work, it’s ‘How are you guys doing?’ She makes it such a warm, welcoming environment. And I think she’s trying to get the most out of it she can, being her last season.
“She is what you want to be, as a teacher. She makes me want to help people.”
“It’s been kind of a long haul, and now I’m starting to realize that the commitment is just tough,” Eileen said. “But I love volleyball. Every time I walk into the gym, it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, I do love this.’
“And when I’m home doing my stuff, I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can balance volleyball.’ Then I walk in the gym and think, ‘Oh, this why I do this.'”