FULTON CHANNEL – Sometimes life’s greatest lessons aren’t taught in the classroom. Sometimes they are taught on the grill during recess.
For more than two decades, North West Elementary School Principal James LaRiccia has emerged daily from the school building and hit the pavement for a flag football game with his students.
It’s a practice he began many years ago as Deputy Principal of Junior High at Youngstown City Schools when his duties involved supervising students during recess.
“I thought instead of just standing there watching them, why not go out and play football with them,” he explained.
On one of his last days before retiring from his 45-year career in education, LaRiccia hit the pavement for a flag game with sophomores.
A love of the game and the development of children’s skills on and off the pitch
A longtime Green Bay Packers fan, LaRiccia said that as a child, he could be found playing football with his neighborhood friends.
He coached middle school students and today he is the play-by-play announcer for the football teams at Austintown Fitch High School and Westminster College (Pennsylvania).
“I love the game,” he said, as do his students – or maybe they love hanging out with the top administrator in school.
Every day, students from kindergarten through second grade wait patiently — but excitedly — for LaRiccia to arrive on the playground, said Jennis Shelton, a social worker at the school.
“Most of the time you’ll find it here (on the playground),” she said. “He’s done it for many years, even in the old Canal Fulton Elementary building. It’s just something that’s part of his day.”
Shelton said LaRiccia would often attend a youth football game checking up on their star players.
Students dress in old high school football jerseys that have been cut down to fit their petite sizes. Some students put on gloves to improve their catching game.
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The makeshift pitch is flanked by two end zones and a 50-yard line. LaRiccia is the quarterback for both sides – red against white – as they work their way through the asphalt field.
The kids line up with LaRiccia on one end while the other team is ready to defend. He gives the word and the students disperse. Each shouting “Mr. LaRiccia, Mr. LaRiccia” in hopes that he’ll throw the ball in their direction.
Sporting the No. 36 red jersey, 8-year-old Trey Lowden goes wide for a pass. LaRiccia throws the ball in the air. Trey catches it easily before being tagged by an opposing player.
“He’s got good throws,” the sophomore said.
Terry said it was special to have someone like LaRiccia spending time with them on the playground.
Sophomore Paisley Gladieux will be missed by her principal.
“It’s great that we were able to play as a team and practice catching the ball and running faster and faster,” added the 8-year-old.
Not only are they having fun, but their manager taught them a lot about the game, the pair said.
LaRiccia hopes it’s more than the rules of the game that the students take with them.
He preaches that the game is not about scoring, but rather about having fun, working as a team and achieving something together.
“You make mistakes, you might have an interception, but do your best,” LaRiccia said. “It’s not about whether you win or lose. It’s about being a good sport and doing your best.”
It’s something he thinks he’s passed on to his students, who rally around players who maybe aren’t as gifted or don’t play as much.
Students will have LaRiccia throw the ball to someone who hasn’t had as much playing time as the others or is new to the game.
“They probably taught me more than I taught them,” said the 67-year-old grandfather of five (including one on the way). “It’s amazing to walk into the hallway and see the kids say hello and smile in my own way. It makes my day.”
“God placed me here and this is where I should be.”
LaRiccia began her career as a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Youngstown Christian School. He then moved to schools in the city of Youngstown. Before coming to Northwest, he was principal of the first charter school in Youngstown.
After three years at the charter school, he decided it was time to move on. On a whim, he looked at the Ohio Department of Education website and saw an opening at Northwest Elementary School.
“I had never heard of Canal Fulton,” LaRiccia said. “I didn’t think they would want a city boy, but they welcomed me as one of their own. It worked.”
Since landing his job at Northwest, LaRiccia has driven more than an hour each way from his Austintown home to Canal Fulton every day.
He didn’t want it any other way.
“It’s such a big community. They’re the most loving and welcoming people. God placed me here and that’s why I should be here,” the father of four said.
Retirement won’t slow LaRiccia, who plans to help out at Heartland Christian School in Columbiana, where his wife, Betsy, is the elementary school principal.
He also plans to work with his church, Tabernacle Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Austintown, to continue his mission of working with the elderly.
The church takes elderly members out of nursing homes and brings them to church for a day of fun.
“We want to get them out of the nursing home or their house and take them on a bus and play games and eat food and have a Bible study,” he said. “It’s like a group of young people for the elderly.”
LaRiccia is also pursuing opportunities to teach at his alma mater Youngstown State University.
“This community is amazing,” he said, adding that he would miss everything.
Contact Amy at 330-775-1135 or [email protected]
On Twitter: @aknappINDE