NORTH BERGEN – Greg Toal owned the room. Leo Vagias owned the night.
The Leonidas Foundation, started in the memory of Vagias and Sam Cali, two former Don Bosco athletes who were killed in an automobile accident last June, officially kicked off its efforts with a raucous and entertaining soiree at The Waterside Restaurant in North Bergen on Thursday.
While one might think that an evening to honor young men gone much too soon would be morose, that was far from the case.
“When we were told that they wanted to do this, we thought it was a gift from Leo and Sam,” said Leo’s father, Ted.
“You know, that nobody is going to forget us. Our friends remember us, and they have picked up that baton and they’re helping us carry that cross.”
The night was full of good cheer and stories about Vagias and Cali, better known simply as Leo and Sam. Pictures of them appeared on television screens fashioned around the establishment with its magnificent view of the New York City skyline.
“They were house devils and street angels,” said Ted Vagias to the assembled crowd on the first floor about the two Morris County residents. “Leo would say, ‘who loves you first?’ to his mom and she would say, ‘I do.’ He would answer back, ‘no, mom, God does.’”
The Leonidas Foundation, started by former classsmates of Leo and Sam, and guided by the Vagias family and members of the Don Bosco school community, has grand plans. Already, Foundation President Matt Perricone said the organization has helped feed over 600 families in need, and given over 1,500 toys to needy children. In his remarks, Perricone said the foundation aims to at least double that in this upcoming calendar year.
The Foundation is also beginning a business-themed curriculum at Don Bosco called the LEO program (Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Opportunity), which will be headquartered on campus.
Thursday night, the Foundation also gave its first prize, a leadership award to Toal.
It was one of the first real public appearances for Toal since his departure from Don Bosco a month ago as head football coach. There is still not a clear reason why Toal was dismissed from the school. School officials said he retired.
Toal was honored during a brief ceremony and received the organization’s leadership award. Former Don Bosco President Fr. John Talamo, the man who hired Toal in 1999, made a surprise appearance and talked about how troubled the school was financially then and how badly he needed Toal to spark the school’s athletic fortunes and change its reputation.
Toal did that and more, leading the Ironmen to two mythical national titles, and nine Non-Public 4 state titles. Don Bosco football became synonymous with North Jersey and tough football players.
Clearly emotional and smiling, Toal kept his remarks brief, calling the Vagias family some of the toughest people he had ever met, and laughing at the memory of Leo’s impersonation of him, saying it was among the best he’d ever heard.
“Leo was a tough kid, a tremendous competitor, off the field, he was quite a character,” said Toal.
Before the night began, Leo’s parents talked about how grateful they were to the Montville community for their support. Fran said she is asked a lot just how she is doing, and she said she draws strength from her faith and her good memories of her son.
“We have this long journey ahead because of this tragedy, but honestly, you’re also circled with love and positive prayer from our friends and family,” said Ted. “Our community is helping us resurrect him in a good way and we just keep looking for the good.”
The restaurant was packed with members of the Don Bosco community, although many members of the current administration were not present. Fran said that some stars from The Real Housewives of New Jersey were expected. Officials from the University of Rhode Island, where Leo was a freshman kicker, were also invited. There was a silent auction upstairs with spectacular prizes from the world of sports and New Jersey.
There is a big wrestling tournament being planned in Cali’s name at West Orange for January. Sam was wrestling at Rutgers.
The two young men were close.
Fran and Ted said they get signs and reminders of their sons’ life every day. They remarked that many of Leo’s friends had had the same dream recently, and how many had coincidentally had their college classes canceled Thursday, allowing them to come to The Waterside and enjoy the evening.
There was sadness, sure, but lots of laughter and joy as well.
“Leo and Sam always looked for the good,” said Fran. “So we are just following their example.”
The full article can be found here: https://www.northjersey.com/story/sports/columnists/darren-cooper/2017/03/30/cooper-leonidas-foundation-gets-good-start/99830928/