Former CFL coach/GM Rita feeling sad for Italy's COVID-19 pandemic anguish

TORONTO — Adam Rita's heart aches over the toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on Italy.

Italy, which had over 97,000 confirmed cases of the disease with more than 10,000 fatalities as of Sunday, is near and dear to Rita's heart. The longtime former CFL coach and GM spent two seasons there coaching the Bergamo Lions of the Italian Football League.

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Rita, 72, and his wife, Judit, are back living in Mississauga, Ont. Fortunately, many of the friends the made in Italy are OK but Rita said a former Lions player did lose his grandfather to the pandemic.

"We became good friends with the parents of one of our players and she was trying to explain to us what was going on there," Rita said. "But it's nowhere near close to the horror they're going through.

"People are dying by the minute and if you're over a certain age there's nothing they can do. It's pretty sad where they're at."

Rita said coaching in Italy had long been on his bucket list after people he knew travelled there and spoke glowingly about the time they spent there. And for Rita, life in Bergamo certainly didn't disappoint.

"In Italy you could live there a lifetime and just scratch the surface . . . I'm a history buff and I love that sort of stuff," Rita said. "Italy is such a great place.

"When you go out in the evening, people are walking and pedestrians are socializing and the music is playing. It's like a different world. Being social is their big deal."

Rita spent the better part of three decades in the CFL as an offensive co-ordinator, head coach and GM with B.C., Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa and Memphis. His teams went to the Grey Cup eight times, winning six.

He also served as the head coach at the University of British Columbia in 1989.

Rita's last season in Canada was 2010 as the Argonauts' GM. His contract wasn't renewed after Toronto posted a 9-9 record and beat Hamilton 16-13 in the East semifinal before losing 48-17 to the eventual Grey Cup-champion Montreal Alouettes in the conference final.

"When I retired from the CFL (after 2010 season), my goal all along was to use football to travel all around the world," Rita said. "I was able to kind of do that.

"I went to several countries to coach, my wife and I. It was unbelievable."

In 2012, Rita served as the head coach of the Prague Panters in the Czech Republic. Two years later, he was off to Switzerland to be the head coach of the Calanda Broncos before landing in Italy

So years before commissioner Randy Ambrosie implemented his CFL 2.0 strategy aimed at growing football globally, Rita learned first-hand about the game's popularity in other parts of the world.

"It's amazing the passion people have for the game," Rita said. "Football provides great structure because it takes all body types and all kinds of people to play the game.

"You don't have to be a great athlete — it helps — but you're an important part of the team whether you're a starter, the backup or just do kickoffs, which is pretty important. There's always a spot for a player. I think every other sport where you have less players, the more highly skilled you have to be."

And in Rita's experience, the vast majority of players all want to be coached hard for a common goal — to succeed and be better.

"Sometimes you think otherwise," Rita said with a chuckle. "But every case and scenario that I've ever been in, they all want to learn.

"It's just a matter of how you deliver the message."

And experience teaches a coach different ways to deliver that message so players understand it clearly. When they do, they're much more apt to buy in.

"It's commitment," Rita said. "You can coach at the youngest age and it's all relevant.

"It's how you handle the situation you're in."

However, Rita gets so much more out of coaching than merely drawing up Xs and Os and implementing schemes for games.

"The thing I miss most about coaching or doing what I do is relationships with people," Rita said. "Not necessarily the game itself.

"You see a young man who comes so far and feels better about himself, whether he's a great player or not is irrelevant. Those are the things that are most important to me. It doesn't matter what level you coach at, it's all the same."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2020.

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