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Rhode Island sports icons share stories of success

Panelists captivated their audience with tales of athletic careers that began in the Ocean State

An Olympic gold medalist, two former professional athletes, an NCAA basketball coach and a renowned amateur golfer all came together for a panel discussion at the Nelson Fitness Center Friday. Brown honored the five panelists, as well as 23 other Rhode Island sports legends, at halftime of the Brown-University of Rhode Island football game Saturday evening.

These accomplished men and women all have one thing in common: They were born and raised in Rhode Island.

Sara DeCosta-Hayes, Bill Almon ’75, Dave Emma, Ed Cooley and Nancy Chaffee gathered before a crowd of nearly 100 people to talk about their experiences growing up and playing sports in Rhode Island and how those early years impacted their future careers.

“We all love Rhode Island,” said Athletic Director Jack Hayes, who organized the event. “As a hard-working state of people who appreciate success, we are thrilled to recognize these individuals who have done some incredible things.”

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 said, “We’re a small state, but we’ve produced some great athletes over the years.”

Other honorees included hockey player Jim Bennett ’79, lacrosse standout Tom Gagnon ’86 and former professional tennis player Gordie Ernst ’89.


From Ivy Leaguer to number one draft pick

Almon grew up in Warwick and played baseball at Veterans Memorial High School. After an illustrious high school career, Almon received offers from all but two Major League teams. Instead of going pro, however, Almon decided to enroll at Brown.

“It was all about the education,” Almon said. “You can get hurt at any moment. My father said, ‘If you’re good enough to be drafted at 18, in three years … if you believe in yourself, you’ll only be better. Not only will you be better, but you’ll have an education on top of that. So you can’t lose.”

During his career at Brown, Almon broke 13 of Brown’s 19 single-game, season and career records. He was named to two all-Ivy teams, and in 1974, the Sporting News named Almon College Baseball Player of the Year.

Later that year, Almon became the only Ivy League student-athlete to be drafted first overall in any sport — a distinction he holds to this day. During his 15-season career as a utility player, Almon played for the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies.

Almon’s favorite memory in the MLB was his debut as a rookie in 1974. Despite going 0-for-4 against future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, the moment was surreal.

“It was everything I ever hoped it would be,” Almon said. “It validated everything for me.”

Almon has since moved back to Warwick, where he currently resides with his wife, Katie.


Pioneer in women’s hockey and gold medalist

Long before any Olympic medals, DeCosta-Hayes began playing competitive ice hockey at age 5. She became the first female to play for Toll Gate High School in Warwick, and as goalie, she led the team to a state championship and earned all-state honors.

“There weren’t many opportunities for girls to play hockey, so I grew up playing with the boys,” DeCosta-Hayes said. “I was the only girl in youth hockey, all the way through high school. That helped me become the athlete I became.”

DeCosta-Hayes went on to play for Providence College after Toll Gate. While still in college in 1998, she made the United States national team, on which she would play for the next seven years.

She won a gold medal with the team at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the first year women’s ice hockey became an Olympic sport. She also went on to win a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

DeCosta-Hayes said a 2002 preliminary round game against China is her favorite Olympic memory.

“To have the opportunity to compete for my country in my country, especially around the time of Sept. 11, and to experience how everyone came together in the country was something I’ll never forget,” DeCosta-Hayes said. “I saw hundreds of American flags. It was a packed stadium.”


Overcoming adversity on and off the court

Cooley grew up on the South Side of Providence in a family of nine children. His mother was on welfare, and his father rarely came around to see his kids.

But that did not stop Cooley from achieving his goals. Cooley earned all-state basketball honors in his junior and senior years at Central High School. He served as captain of his team at Stonehill College for three years and, after coaching at Fairfield University for five years, returned home to coach Providence College in 2011.

“You think I grew up tough — I think I grew up great,” Cooley said. “The days where there wasn’t a lot of food, I found a way. I’m a big guy.”

Instead of looking into the past and “becoming paralyzed by stuff that didn’t happen,” Cooley said he prefers to live in the present.

“I wake up and say, ‘Today is the best day of my life,’” Cooley said. “It really is. It’s the only day we can control, it’s the only minute we can control, the only hour we can control. I love using positive words every single day to ignite all that enthusiasm and passion within yourself.”

Last year, Cooley led Providence College to its first winning season since 2008. He is glad to be back home, coaching where he grew up.

“I love Rhode Island,” Cooley said. “I’ll be buried here. I love the water, I love the people, I love the accents, I love the food. I think the pressure here has helped me. Every time we lose, I feel like I’ve let everybody down. I feel a sense of urgency to win for everybody else, not myself.”


From the trenches to success

Like DeCosta-Hayes, Emma grew up dreaming of playing in the Olympics. The biggest obstacle he had to overcome was his size.

“I was always told that, no matter how successful I was, I was too small to play,” Emma said. “I never let any of that negativity affect me. I knew that I had that inner strength, I had that drive and I had that commitment.”

As a young man, Emma worked digging trenches for his father’s plumbing company. Instead of allowing Emma to use a machine, his father made him use a pick to dig the trenches by hand.

“That’s what showed me that there wasn’t anything in life I couldn’t accomplish,” Emma said.

The hard work certainly paid off for Emma. As a senior right-winger at Boston College in 1991, Emma won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey. He was drafted by the New Jersey Devils later that year, which marked the beginning of a 10-year NHL career with the Devils and the Florida Panthers.

In 1992, Emma’s dream came true when he was selected to play for the U.S. Olympic Team. Emma cites the Olympic opening ceremonies, winning the Hobey Baker Award and seeing his number retired by Boston College as the three proudest moments of his career.

Emma now resides in Florida with his family, but comes back frequently to visit his parents and sister.

“Rhode Island is home,” Emma said. “My roots are here and my family is here. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the people who supported me in Rhode Island, going back all the way to my youth hockey days.”


‘A lasting sport’

Since winning her first Rhode Island Women’s Golf Association title when she was 17 years old, Chaffee has become the only woman to win a Rhode Island State Championship in four different decades. She is also the only woman to win the Rhode Island Golf Association’s junior, regular and senior championships.

And Chaffee’s illustrious career isn’t even over yet; the 69-year-old won her fifth and most recent senior championship in 2012 and tallied her eighth career hole-in-one last year. She practices every day from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., goes to work and then plays a round in the evening.

“It’s been a fun time, and I’ve enjoyed it,” Chaffee said. “It’s a lasting sport.”

Chaffee teaches golf to junior players for six weeks each spring and sees her work as a good way to give back to the state she loves.

“I’ve been so privileged to have been born in Rhode Island,” Chaffee said. “Rhode Islanders stick with Rhode Islanders. There’s nothing like a Rhode Island person.”


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