Children sat around the stage. West Hall football players stood on stage, and the auditorium was full as Tony Lotti took the stage.
The third-year Spartans coach was honored Monday night as one of four national winners of the “Caring Coach of the Year” awards from Dove Men+Care Deodorant and the College Football Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the school.
“One of the greatest honors and privileges is to be entrusted with someone else’s child,” Lotti told the crowd. “Thank you for letting me be your coach.”
Former Georgia Bulldogs and Chicago Bears player Kevin Butler, the lone kicker in the College Football Hall of Fame, presented Lotti with a helmet for winning the award.
Monday’s event marked the latest in a whirlwind few days for Lotti and the Spartans, who suffered a 42-38 first-round playoff loss to Oconee County on Friday. The Region 7-AAA champions led briefly late in the game after trailing by 21 points at halftime.
Lotti couldn’t help but draw the parallels between the values he has tried to instill in the program and Friday night’s game.
“In the heartache that we experienced, I think you saw the way we came back. That’s character, that’s heart, discipline,” Lotti said in an interview after the event. “That’s what I was so proud of, the fact that you don’t come back from three touchdowns down in a state playoff game unless you have character.”
A video featuring Lotti and the other three winners will be unveiled Dec. 19 at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, with Lotti and the other honorees on hand.
He will also appear with the other winners in an advertisement in the “Sportsman of the Year” issue of Sports Illustrated.
The honor became a possibility when Rita Crocker, an English teacher at West Hall, submitted an essay that introduced Lotti as one of 824 nominees from 48 states. She first learned about the award on Facebook and immediately thought of Lotti. He was her co-teacher for one year, giving her the chance to see first-hand how he cares for students. It’s also clear in the way his players approach their classwork.
“More than football, he’s changed the mindset of the school,” Crocker said. “He’s changed the spirit of the kids. The kids are just excited. They’re doing the right things, and they’re sitting in the front of the class. They’re working hard.”
The region title this season was the first in the program’s history, and the Spartans also earned consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since a three-year run of postseason trips from 2000-02. West Hall has gone from three wins to six to nine in Lotti’s three seasons.
“I’m just very blessed that I get to a job that I absolutely love to do,” Lotti said. “They said, ‘If you do what you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life,’ and I’m just so thankful to be amongst these kids and very fortunate.”
Crocker had a son in the Spartans football program about six years ago and can see a major difference today. She said she thanks West Hall principal Scott Justus, the school’s former athletic director, on a weekly basis for bringing in Lotti.
“He must have seen something in him that he knew was going to be right for this community,” Crocker said. “The stands are full now. People are cheering. I can’t even tell you what a difference it is. To be able to recognize him is the least I could do for what he’s done for this community.”