BRUNSWICK, Maine — As the Brunswick High School freshman football team huddled before Thursday’s game against Morse, a lone voice shouted, “For Phil.” His teammates echoed the cry.
Wearing socks marked with the initials of their coach, who died Tuesday, the team took the field and played as Phil Gary would have wanted.
Gary, 45, died suddenly Tuesday morning at his Brunswick home. He leaves a family including his wife, Gail, and eight children — biological children, stepchildren, foster children and adopted children.
But his extended family includes local athletes he’d coached, Boy Scouts he’d mentored, parents and seemingly countless others who remembered Gary as loving, generous and “a true humanitarian.”
Word spread quickly Tuesday morning that Gary had died. The news went out on Facebook, and parents sent text messages to their kids at school. Hunter Garrett, 14, a freshman football player, said his dad messaged him with the “devastating news.”
“The kids loved him,” said Dan Devereaux, whose son plays on the freshman football team Gary coached. “Phil was one of those guys who was always consistently there in all the sports programs. He was the kind of guy who could set kids down and straighten them out.”
“Basically he treated all the kids like his own,” said Jeff Girardin, president of the Brunswick Area Youth Football League. “The kids in the community came first … he taught them everything they knew about good sportsmanship and manners.”
Even though the Gary home was often bursting at the seams, the couple regularly welcomed children to their place, including Girardin’s son. The family sometimes projected movies onto the side of their house and invited friends and neighbors over to watch.
“They were like, ‘The more, the merrier,’” Girardin said.
Bruce Martinson recalled sitting at a Boy Scout meeting Tuesday night when Gary commented to one or two boys that they needed a haircut and “cajoled” kids into finishing up a scouting badge, Martinson wrote Thursday in an email to the Bangor Daily News.
“The neat thing about Phil was that he always had a smile on his face,” Mark Waltz of Topsham said Thursday. Waltz, who met Gary about 15 years ago through Boy Scouts, knew him later through Brunswick Area Youth Football League.
Waltz, a captain at the Brunswick Police Department, said he saw Phil frequently at the station getting fingerprinted to adopt yet another child.
Misty Coombs said she told her son and daughter about Gary’s death Tuesday morning. Since then, her son has told her, “Mom, there were things I needed to say to Phil, and now I can’t.”
Coombs’ daughter recalled a trip to McDonalds after a football game when Gary walked in singing “Happy Birthday” to his son. Afterwards, they all joined in for cupcakes.
On Wednesday, seventh- and eighth-grade football players spoke briefly before practice about Gary’s death.
“I think they understand what’s going on,” Girardin said. “Certainly we all miss him, and we took a moment of silence, but we agreed coach would want us to keep practicing.”
“The best single word [to describe Gary] would be ‘humanitarian,’” Mark Gay, assistant coach of the freshman team, said at Thursday’s game. “He just loved people … it was always about the kids more than anything — making sure they had discipline, supervision and love.”
Austin Phillips, 14, a linebacker and guard on the freshman football team, recalled Thursday that Gary would focus on what the kids did right before discussing anything else.
“He’d call you over and your first thought was, ‘I’m going to get it,’” Phillips said. “But even if you did something wrong, he’d tell you the good things before the bad things.”
In the days since Gary’s death, families in the community have contacted Waltz to see how they could help Gail and their children. So the Brunswick Area Youth Football League board has organized fundraisers and is accepting donations to benefit the family.
At Saturday’s Brunswick Area Youth Football League game at Fairgrounds Field in Topsham, the flag will fly at half-staff to honor Gary, and the team will hold a moment of silence.
On Oct. 19, proceeds from the concession stand at the Brunswick Area Youth Football League playoff games at Fairgrounds Field in Topsham will benefit the family.
The same day, Brunswick Area Youth Football League will hold a bake sale at the Brunswick-Mt. Ararat middle school football game at Stowe Field in Brunswick, with proceeds to benefit the family.
Brunswick Area Youth Football League has also set up a “Gary Family Fund” to accept donations. Contributions can be made at the games or sent to “Gary Family Fund,” in care of Brunswick Area Youth Football League, P.O. Box 818, Brunswick, ME 04011.
“Obviously it could never make up for Phil, but if we can help with the financial costs,” that’s something, Waltz said.
Thursday afternoon, with Gary’s son suited up for the game, the Brunswick freshmen beat Morse, 32-12.
Nearby, moms of his teammates held a bake sale to raise money for the family. A poster featuring photos of Gary — one of the coach sitting on the sidelines in an orange Cal Ripken T-shirt, his arms wrapped around his young daughter — was displayed along with signatures and remembrances by his players.
“I’ll never forget how much you helped me,” one remembered.
Another wrote, “You were the coach no one could forget.”