About Coach John “Wags” Wagner

In 2006, John Wagner, the Freshman Football Coach at St. Joe’s Prep,  was diagnosed with head and neck cancer.  With a tough battle ahead of him, “Coach Wags” did the only thing that he knew how to...coach.

He missed the entire 2006

season due to aggressive

treatments.  The treatments

proved to be successful, as the cancer went into remission.  Coach Wags returned to coaching in 2007.  Unfortunately, early in the 2007

season, the cancer was back and spreading.  This time Coach Wags would not miss a single practice or game.

During the unforgettable 2007 season, Coach Wags won his 100th game.  For 13 years, he touched the lives and hearts of all of his players and their families.  He was known to do anything and everything in his power to help transform the boys he coached into young men.

We lost Coach Wags in July of 2008.  He fought to the bitter end.  He was a hero and a true inspiration to everyone who knew him.

In the spirit of “Keeping the Fight Alive,” the family of Coach Wags established The Coach Wags Memorial Foundation in 2010.  All of the proceeds will help fund ground breaking cancer research and help improve the daily lives of children battling this horrible disease.

Posted on Thu, Jul. 17, 2008

John Wagner Jr., 60, coach

By Gayle Ronan Sims

Inquirer Staff Writer

John Wagner Jr., 60, of Sewell, beloved freshman football coach at St. Joseph's Preparatory School and a postal worker for 25 years, died of throat cancer Friday at Methodist Hospital. He had been a longtime resident of Southwest Philadelphia.

Born in South Philadelphia, Mr. Wagner graduated from West Catholic High School in 1965. He enlisted in the Navy in 1968 and was a lightweight boxer while serving Stateside on the Yosemite, a destroyer tender, until his discharge in 1970. He married Mona Caruso in 1978, and they raised three children.  "My dad taught me to box when I was 3 years old," John Wagner III said. "We threw big parties in our basement to watch fights on television."

Mr. Wagner worked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for 10 years before the U.S. Postal Service hired him in 1986. He retired a few months ago as a supervisor with the Media Post Office.  Mr. Wagner's real love was coaching football. Affectionately called Coach Wags, he became freshman football coach at St. Joe's 13 years ago when his two sons were on the team.  A milestone in Coach Wags' life occurred Oct. 27, when St. Joe's faced archrival Monsignor Bonner during a torrential rainstorm.

"We scored two quick ones in the first four minutes and won 27-0. That was my dad's 100th win," his son said. "There were at least 150 fans that turned out in the rain to watch the game. My dad was given a jacket to commemorate the occasion."

"Today was the culmination of my life," Coach Wags said after the game. "I loved it."  St. Joe's varsity head coach Gil Brooks said Coach Wags had been "the gatekeeper" of football. "Wags' 100th win was as special as any moment in the history of Prep football."

Mr. Wagner's sons helped him coach the last five years.  "My father was not all about winning. Relationships and preparing the boys for life were more important to him," son John said. "He touched so many lives. More than 1,000 people paid their respects at his funeral."  In addition to his wife and John, Mr. Wagner is survived by son Steven; a daughter, Kim Grosso; his mother, Candida; a grandson; and two brothers.

Legendary Prep football coach dies at 60

John Wagner, described by Andy Reid as “one of the best,” is remembered for more than football

By John Knebels Catholic Standard and Times

Coach “Wags” celebrates his 100th victory after the Prep defeated Bonner 27-0 on Oct. 27, 2007. Although battling cancer, he rallied back to successfully lead the team.

In most sports, both credit and blame are ultimately showered upon the head coach.

It’s part of the job description.

But ask any veteran coach and he or she will tell you that without top-notch assistants performing behind-the-scenes tasks before, during, and after the season, the chances for success are slim to none.

One of those top-notch assistants, John “Wags” Wagner, died July 11 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 60.

For the past 13 years, Wagner, a 1965 graduate of West Catholic High School, coached the St. Joseph’s Prep freshman team, culminating in his 100th career victory last Oct. 27. A large crowd of well-wishers ignored steady rain to pay tribute to a man that Prep head coach Gil Brooks said he never heard one negative thing said about.

In any walk of life, that’s rare. In football? With all of the grueling pre-season workouts and game-day situations that warrant unpopular substitution decisions? That’s almost impossible.

One person who believes that Brooks is not exaggerating is Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid.

Reached by telephone, Reid praised Wagner for having “helped turn boys into young men.” One of those young men was Reid’s son Spencer, a sophomore at the Prep who was coached by Wagner last fall.

“He was one of the best,” said Reid, who joined hundreds of mourners at both the viewing and funeral, both at the Gesu Church. “Coach Wags was the ultimate coach. He was always positive. It didn’t matter if you were a good player or a bad player. His players had all kinds of confidence because he was a great teacher, both of football and how to be a good person.”

Despite a brutal schedule of his own, Reid said he occasionally attended Prep practices and games. Reid appreciated what he witnessed from the stands and was also impressed with what his son told him at home.

The bottom line is that, like hundreds of parents over the years, Reid felt totally comfortable entrusting his son into Wagner’s care.

From a parent’s perspective, no compliment is better.

“There are all kinds of ways of getting results,” said Reid. “Everyone has their own way. Wags had his way. He was always under control, and the players really respected him. He gave so much of himself, and he was a great ‘starting coach’ for young players who eventually made their way up to play for Coach Brooks.”

On the popular Web site, tedsilary.com, a memorial page was established for Wagner. Many friends, colleagues and former players left beautiful tributes for someone fellow Prep assistant freshman coach John Howe said always made him and his wife Shell feel like family.

Longtime friend John Simpson recalled how Channel 10’s Vai Sikahema, a former NFL player and one-time Philadelphia Eagle, accepted Wagner’s request that he say a few words to the team. He labeled Wagner an “excellent leader” whom they should all listen to and follow. Simpson said one could tell that Wagner was “overwhelmed” by Sikahema’s kind sentiments.

John Connors, a 2002 Prep graduate and star athlete, labeled his freshman football season of 1998 “the best of my life for many reasons…but what really made that season special was Coach Wagner.”

A graduate of Harvard University, Connors said Wagner challenged the players to do “better than our best” and “most importantly, coached with a genuine love for each and every one of his players.” He said Wagner provided constant encouragement during the season and it would extend throughout the players’ football careers.

Eddie Turner, a 2000 Prep grad, said Wagner “left an indelible mark on my life as an athlete and a man for others” and said Wagner’s “desire to impart wisdom to and show genuine care for players was effortless and astonishing.”

Wagner was survived by his wife Mona, daughter, Kim Grosso, and sons, John and Steve, both Prep alums and former assistant coaches for their dad.

In the end, it was Connors who offered the ultimate tribute for Wagner.

“I am a better player having played for you,” he said. “I am a better man having known you. And I will always remember you as the greatest coach I ever played for.”
Enough said.

John Knebels can be reached at jknebs@aol.com.