J.C Periac expected to be at practice with the Edgemont outdoor track and field team on Monday, the first workout of the new season. He also planned to be there for cross-country in the fall and indoor track in winter before hanging up his clipboard, whistle and running shoes.
Instead, Periac retired on Monday afternoon to the shock of athletic director Anthony DeRosa, most of the 80 kids awaiting his arrival for the first day of preseason, and, perhaps most of all, his longtime coaching co-conspirator, Steve Rubenstein.
“I was thinking that it should happen sooner than later and I was really planning to do this spring, cross-country and then next winter and that would be it, but I came to realize I’m getting older and it’s not every day I feel like I’m able to give 100 percent,” Periac said. “I’m not the type to do the job half way.”
With one month to go until he turns 70, Periac made the hard choice. The coach with the “beautiful,” according to Rubenstein, French accent, was a fixture at Edgemont three seasons per year since 1988, when he joined the coaching staff as Tom Blank’s assistant with the varsity girls soccer team. In 2008, when Kevin Youngs retired, Periac gave up coaching modified soccer and took over cross-country in the fall, but has been coaching track and field every year since he arrived.
Over the years Youngs, Rubenstein and Periac were head and assistant coaches, but they were the heart and soul of the running programs for decades as other assistant coaches floated in and out of the program.
“It was a well-oiled machine,” Periac said. “We had really designed a system that worked well for us. Kevin was doing the distance, Steve was doing the sprinters and hurdles and I covered all the field events.”
On a recent Caribbean vacation, Periac, who spent part of his childhood there up there, realized that for him and his family “maybe it’s time to slow down.” He understood the bind his quick decision left Edgemont in, but said, “Anthony very nicely expressed that it’s up to me and I had to do what was best for me and not to worry about anything else. That was very nice of him.”
After the tears subsided Monday and the Panthers had a good practice with Rubenstein and new assistant coach Nikki Rosee — a third coach will be added by DeRosa as soon as possible — the messages started pouring into Periac’s inbox. “Every day,” he said on Thursday morning. “I’ve been getting nice text messages and compliments and best wishes. I’ve managed to read them, but I’m falling behind in replying to them.”
Rubenstein has put off contacting Periac until he feels emotionally ready to reach out. The duo always joked they would retire together, but Rubenstein, who teaches at the high school, isn’t ready to go.
“I had no idea,” Rubenstein said. “When you get to be our age you think about it every year, but the kids are so great here you get pulled back into it. We’re very fortunate to be working with kids like this who are so fantastic.”
Rubenstein recalls instantly hitting it off with Periac when the two met in the late ’80s. “We’re brothers,” Rubenstein said. “This is a big family for us with the thousands of kids who have come through here.”
He joked that they were so in tune with each other on and off the track that they often dressed alike in their Edgemont gear. And it was never on purpose. “We have so much merchandise and we always wear the same thing without even talking about it first,” he said.
Among the great memories Rubenstein has are the more than 10 league championships, but three in particular stand out. The year he returned to the program after a few years off was the only year the Panthers won leagues for the boys and girls in cross-country, indoor and outdoor track and field. That was the 2005-06 school year. “He was a big part of it,” Rubenstein said. “I had to stop for a while and he took over and they didn’t lose a step. I came back and we reconnected again.”
Over the last 30 years, the one constant was Periac.
“I’m going to miss the atmosphere of track and field and the school and the kids,” Periac said. “It’s so new to me I’m not even used to it yet that it’s 3 o’clock and I’m not going anywhere.
“Over the years it’s been a great experience. We’ve had good, talented athletes there and some years we did well. When we didn’t do as well some years we still tried. That’s the best you can do.”
Periac grew up in the Caribbean and France, where soccer was his main sport. There were fields everywhere and it didn’t cost anything to go play with his friends. He played competitive club soccer and got into running cross-country because his brother needed an extra runner. He was also a “decent” 600-meter, peaking at 1:27 in high school.
“Sometimes I was doing a soccer game in the morning and a cross-country meet in the afternoon,” Periac said.
He came to the United States in 1977 for “work and pleasure at the same time.” The goal was to record an album — he played bass — but, he said, “It didn’t work out very well.” Plan B was staying, getting married and refocusing his life, which led to a career in advertising and coaching, and eventually running and training others for marathons.
Periac has put in his fair share of miles, which were appreciated by many of the athletes he encountered.
“I was definitely sad that he would not be here to coach one of my last track seasons,” Gillian Duffalo said. “He was an extremely supportive coach that taught us that working hard can pay off. He truly brought such a positive energy to the team and I will undoubtedly miss him.”
Duffalo was one of the lucky ones who received a rapid response from her mentor. His message was unchanged: keep working hard. “Even though he has left Edgemont now, he has already inspired all of us to be better runners,” Duffalo said.
Nora Butler was also shocked, but understood the coach had to do what was best. Butler worked with Periac for five memorable seasons.
“I’ve learned so much from him, and simply to have him as a coach was a great reason to join track or cross-country,” butler said. “It’ll be a shame to lose him, but now we have Nikki Rosee as our new long distance coach. Looking into the future, I still believe this season will be great even if he isn’t coaching us. The team will move on and put their foot forward, but we will never forget the contributions, traditions and memories that J.C. has given to the team.”
Lilah Willis took Periac’s sudden retirement hard.
“People were pretty upset,” Willis said. “It definitely wasn’t a good reaction. I think J.C. has definitely held the team together for a while. To see him leave was tragic in a sense, but I think people want to run now for J.C. to show him they are willing to put in the work. It is a motivation and we hope to see him again.”
Willis is a sprinter, but worked with Periac for long jump and one season of cross-country.
“This was my first year doing cross-country,” Willis said. “I tried it. I didn’t like it, but I tried it. I only stayed on the team for him, honestly. He’s just a very happy guy. He was always motivating, inspiring and he pushed you to do the best. He would tell you when you did a good job, but he would always tell you you could do better, too. He was definitely a great coach.”
Rubenstein, knowing how fragile Willis still is, asked if she shed tears talking about Periac. “I didn’t cry,” she said. “I’ve been crying a lot, but I’ve been doing better now.”