I first met Jim Onacki when he transferred from OCC to Oswego State back around 1980 or so. It might have been my sophomore or even junior year; not exactly certain.
What I do remember still – after almost 40 years – are the laughs… and maybe the best example of a true team player I’ve ever met. That sounds very clichéd, but if you know Jim, you also know that I’m not exaggerating one bit.
In today’s politically-correct vernacular, Jim is a little person, but we never called him that. The words and descriptions we used back then wouldn’t cut it today, so hopefully the statute of limitations has expired by now.
But we thought it was OK to make fun of Jim, because he made fun of himself… and he showed us all what it meant to work hard. Think two-on-ones are tough (if you’re the one)? Try defending two guys twice your size. Think riding from sideline to sideline and endline to midfield line is exhausting? Try it with legs that are half the length of everyone else’s. Think covering the 110x55 yard field is a challenge? Try doing it when you’re all of four foot-two inches tall.
That’s what Jim brought to the table every day at practice. The rest of us quickly realized we had nothing
to complain about, not as long as Onack was out there giving it all and asking for nothing in return. In fact, one of the jokes we used to crack was calling out to him, “C’mon, Jim! If you’re not even going to try…!” The truth was that he was trying harder than any of us – always.
Our coach, Dr. John Spring, was a big fan of sending us on long-distance runs… frequently. Sometimes it was just campus – a 5K (3.1 miles) loop, but other days we were sent out by the lake shore or through neighborhoods we’d never seen before, covering anywhere from four to maybe eight miles. Jim couldn’t run the same speed as everyone else, but he never asked for any favors. Instead, he’d check in with Coachman and find out where the day’s run would be, and he’d leave early enough so that he would finish the same time as his teammates. He never asked for special treatment, even when he probably could have gotten some.
Jim wasn’t a starter, but that never seemed to bother him. He wanted to be on the team, he wanted to compete, but most importantly, he wanted to show everyone – his coaches, his teammates, and his opponents – that he was a lacrosse player.
At Oswego, Jim played attack, and Bob Kelley and I were defensemen. Bobby had played against Jim in high school – Jim for West Genesee and Bob for Bishop Ludden – and Bobby warned me about matching up with Onack.
“I hated playing against him,” Bobby explained to me. “If you come out and beat him up, take the ball away or knock him around, you’re a jerk. But if you go easy on him, he’ll light you up and make you look silly. You can’t win. I’m glad he’s on our team now and I don’t have to play against him anymore.”
After playing with and against Jim for a couple of years, I don’t think it really bothered him either way. He was tough enough to be able to handle the rough play, and he was perfectly OK with making you look silly with his smart play.
Jim made us laugh, day in and day out. We loved him, and we loved having him part of the program. He hid himself in a locker one day in a dark locker room and scared the buhjeezus out of soccer coach Ken Peterson. He chanted “Parking lot, parking lot” when we commiserated about practicing on the blacktop lot next to Romney Field House, distracting us enough that we really didn’t mind chasing balls all over campus and down Route 104.
Jim had a bike that he rode all over campus and downtown, and he had a reputation for leaving it behind some late nights. Mornings would often bring the question, “Wonder where I left my bike last night?”
Jim’s roommate was Gerry Crossett, another West Genny grad, who I used to tease about being the only person I ever knew from WG who didn’t play lacrosse (in those days, Oswego State had Wildcat connections to Ross Maniaci, Dave Howe, Art Werbeck, Pat Burke, Steve Pirro, and others). Ironically, today Gerry is readying himself for retirement from the West Genesee school district, where he has spent most of his career teaching high school math and coaching – you guessed it – lacrosse. Gerry’s a taller guy, which made the image of him and Jim walking into one of Oswego’s watering holes quite the silhouette. Jim was known to walk across bars on occasion and play an entertaining game of pool.
I was one of Jim’s final housemate during his years at Oswego State. Five of us lived in a four-bedroom townhouse on West Eighth Street. Jim and I shared the biggest bedroom, but I’d tell people that I let him sleep across the bottom of my bed, or that I let him use one of my dresser drawers. He played right along.
I don’t think he had a full academic load that year, because he seemed to never miss a re-run of The Love Boat
every morning. Between you and me, I think he had a thing for Julie McCoy, the cruise director...
That was 1982-83, my first year teaching at Hannibal, and my first year as head coach at Oswego State. When it came to finding an assistant coach, I didn’t have to look any further than Onack. He knew the game, players loved him, and he had the passion.
I remember there was a fall scrimmage one weekend and Jim promised he’d line the field before game time. We met in the locker room that morning and he said he’d just completed the job, as promised. When we went outside and looked at the field, it featured some of the most creative un-straight
lines I’ve ever seen; if those lines were used to judge his sobriety, he would’ve been in trouble. The refs and our opponent laughed all afternoon; we teased him about that for years!
Even mundane tasks like grocery shopping were adventures when you took Jimmy along. He’d hop up in a shopping cart and point at little kids (before they had a chance to point at him) and smile, or growl, and generally create mischief in every aisle. He taught me that the best defense was a good offense.
After he left Oswego, Jim continued to coach, working with the Camillus Youth Hockey Association. I used to go to his games whenever his teams played in Oswego. The kids on his team were about the same height as Jim.
Every October, Jim used to come back to town for our Alumni Weekend and stay at our house. When Brian and Eric were little, they loved when Uncle Jim came for the weekend. Of course, he’d usually bring them something, some little present. But there was more than one year when they couldn’t quite understand why Jimmy got to go out with Dad on Friday night when they had to stay home and go to bed. In their minds, he was their size – so why should he get any special privileges? The way they saw it, he should have to go to bed when they went to bed!
As the decades passed, I saw less and less of Jim. Occasionally he’d come up to a Laker game in the spring, and I’d try to catch up with him either before or afterwards. In my last few years, his appearances were fewer, and the last time I saw, he arrived after the game started and left before it ended, which meant I didn’t get to speak with him at all. His back was giving him troubles, and I believe there was at least one surgery…
I hate to admit it, but I’d pretty much lost touch with Jim in recent years. Gerry would give me updates when I saw him, and usually the news wasn’t very good. Jim’s health was deteriorating.
Then, last year, I was contacted by Dr. David Sorbello, a sports anthropologist turned filmmaker. He went to school with Jim, and had recently put together a tribute film highlighting Coach Messere’s remarkable coaching career. That film led to the idea of another – why not tell Jim’s story?
Fast forward: In the past year, Dave interviewed me, Gerry, Coach Messere, some of Jim’s brothers and sisters, SU assistant coach Kevin Donahue, and John Spring, and he’s got a three-minute trailer-type film all set to premiere at the Syracuse Film Festival in a few weeks. The project was endorsed by US Lacrosse, and there could be further development in the works.
The film is entitled “Jimmy 13 – The Smallest Wildcat with the Biggest Heart,” and it will be shown on Saturday, October 12 at the 7 PM session at The Red House Arts Center on South Salina Street. Admission is $10 for the session (I believe); for tickets and more information, you can go to: http://syrfilm.com/2019-schedule.html
Whether you know Jim or not, this ought to be a pretty special occasion. Following the three films shown in this session (the first is about 75 minutes long; the third one runs about 20 minutes), there will be a Q&A session with the three filmmakers. I’m going to get word out to Oswego State alumni and the Oswego community; there are others spreading the word throughout the halls of WGHS and the streets and parks of Camillus. It would be great if we could pack the house.
Here’s a brief synopsis:
“Jimmy 13 – The Smallest Wildcat with the Biggest Heart” is a human interest story about inclusion in sports, perseverance in life, and strong character. Jimmy’s disability didn’t hold him back from taking on life’s challenges as he earned his way on to the Hall of Fame Coach Mike Messere’s legendary West Genesee boy’s lacrosse team in Camillus, New York. Jimmy would go on to play college lacrosse at Oswego State, coach ice hockey and lacrosse, work for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department, and so much more. This inspirational life story has been formally endorsed by US Lacrosse.
And as if that wasn’t cool enough, I’m also very happy to report that Jim Onacki will be inducted into the Camillus/West Genesee Community Sports Hall of Fame this fall. The ceremony is on Saturday, November 9, at Mo’s Pit BBQ on Newport Road in Camillus.
I threw names out last week that were pretty impressive, but how about joining the ranks of the Donahues, Desko, Buzzell, Tambroni, Kotz, Beville, Lockwood, Sheehan, Nims, Deegan, and Messere? Yowza!
Jim’s story has been told before but, until now, not recently. Lacrosse Magazine published a story entitled “Small Wonder” about him back in July of 1981, and the Syracuse Herald-Journal did a feature on him back in June of 1987.
But in the next few months, between Dr. Sorbello’s film and Onack’s HOF induction, it’s time we hear – and then re-tell – his story once again.
I’ll see you there, because it’s really quite a story.
Drive carefully everyone.
- Dan Witmer
RTD CNY/Upstate lacrosse calendar:
Fri, Oct 4 Cortland vs. NY Tech
Sat, Oct 5 US Lacrosse TryLax Clinic; C-LAX Legends Clinic featuring Bill Tierney; Syracuse vs. Denver
Thurs, Oct 10 – Sat, Oct 12 LASNAI Box Lacrosse Tournament
Fri, Oct 11 – Sun, Oct 13 LASNAI Box Lacrosse Youth Tournament
Sun, Oct 27 Upstate Lacrosse Foundation Hall of Fame Banquet
Fri, Nov 1 US Lacrosse Greater Rochester Chapter Hall of Fame Banquet
Dan Witmer is the author of two books. The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland. ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.