If there's one thing Chris Donovan has noticed during his first month as director of athletics for Manchester's public schools, it's how passionate the city is about its interscholastic teams.
"I've met many people who have lived in the city all their lives, and they love their high school teams," said Donovan. "I realize I'm an outsider, and I can't do anything to change that fact. Right now I'm just trying to integrate myself into the city, reaching out and talking to people who know the history of sports in Manchester."
Donovan spent the last two years as director of athletics for the Town of Westport on Massachusetts' South Coast.
"Westport is a community of 25,000 people with one high school and two middle schools," said Donovan. "Now I'm dealing with three high schools, four middle schools and close to 6,000 kids, compared to just 600 in Westport. It's like night and day."
Nevertheless, his transition has been a smooth one, Donovan said, attributing that to support he's received from superintendent Debra Livingston, the athletics coordinators at the high schools, the city's Parks and Recreation Department, his immediate predecssor, Dave Gosselin, and another former city AD, Butch Joseph.
"When I started the job, I quickly noticed that pieces were in place here," Donovan said. "There is a network of support here for me to run the athletic department efficiently."
Donovan has reached out to the school principals in the city and met with NHIAA Executive Director Pat Corbin.
"I made it a priority to get to know as many people as I possibly can," he said. "Communication is something I believe in. I'm not planning to do my job independently. I'm here to listen to what people have to say and try to advance the athletic program forward."
Donovan said he was impressed with the playing fields in the city, particularly Gill Stadium.
"Second to none," he said of Gill, which just celebrated its centennial. "I mean, how many communities have a place to play ball like Gill Stadium? It's a special place, and I got to know something about it when I attended the 100th birthday celebration."
His current priority, he said, is building relationships with the schools' coaches.
"I coached football, and I made sure I was dedicated and committed to the kids I was coaching," Donovan said. "I expect that from all my coaches. I want commitment, and I want them to get the best out of each kid on the field and in the classroom. I've already been to many games this fall, and I've been impressed with what I've seen from our coaches so far."
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THE GIANT check he received from NFL sponsor Courtyard by Marriott had his name on it, but C.J. Perez wanted to make clear that the award belonged to his youth-football program, the Manchester East Cobras.
"I'm just a cog in a wonderful machine," he said on Friday, crediting his fellow board members, his players and their parents for the organization's success.
Perez is one of 10 USA Football coaches cited by Courtyard by Marriott and USA Football — the national sanctioning body with which the Cobras are affiliated — for inspiring youths in their communities.
Thursday in Foxborough, Mass., during a ceremony before that night's Patriots-Jets game — he received a check for $1,000 to put toward the purchase of new helmets, shoulder pads and equipment for the Cobras, one of several teams he coaches in the city.
A substitute teacher for Manchester public schools, Perez also coaches spring track and field for Southside Middle School, basketball for the Manchester Boys and Girls Club and lacrosse for the Manchester Police Athletic League. In addition to all that, he's an assistant football coach at Manchester High West.
But it's his work with youth-league athletes, particularly at-risk kids, that caught the Marriott folks' attention.
"C.J. Perez is known for being more than just a youth football coach," said Gini Gladstone, vice president of Courtyard Brand Marketing. "He's being honored for inspiring greatness in his team of at-risk youth football players who are between the ages of 5 and 14 years old. For some of the kids, C.J. is a teacher, mentor and even a father figure. His commitment to the future of football and his community hasn't gone unnoticed."
Perez, 41, said his commitment to working with kids stems from his own experience as a youth-sports athlete growing up in a tough neighborhood in Santa Ana, Calif.
"I was an inner-city kid, and football saved my life," he said.
The Cobras program includes 160 football players and 140 cheerleaders, Perez said.
"The league, the kids, our organization and volunteers are totally committed to make the Cobras the best program it can be," he said. "For myself, I don't do this for awards and accolades. I'm just trying to provide kids something which was never provided for me as a kid. To me, this award is for everyone connected to our program, and I plan on sharing it with them."
"City Sports" appears on Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at email@example.com.