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When the two coaches meet on the field tonight before the game, as football tradition dictates, it will be an interaction so burdened with unspoken meaning that Paul Cronin and Herc Pardi pray they never will have to do it again.

?I guess my first instinct will be to hug him,? said Pardi, head coach at Clayton Valley high school in Concord.

And then what will he say to Cronin, head coach at Cardinal Newman high just north of Santa Rosa ? ?I don?t have the words,? Pardi said.

Words fail. How could they not? ?Sorry for your loss? doesn?t quite seem to cover it.

On Nov. 26, the day before Thanksgiving, Cronin?s brother David, a Sonoma County Sheriff?s lieutenant, took his own life with a handgun.

On Dec. 5, a week ago Friday afternoon, about an hour after David Cronin was laid to rest in Santa Rosa, Pardi?s brother John died of a heart attack in Oakland.

And as if Cronin needed any more on his plate, his two-year daughter, Madison, has been hospitalized with pneumonia since Wednesday, with Cronin and his wife Tracey passing in the night as they attend to their daughter at Memorial Hospital.

?I am hoping she can be released in time to go to the game,? said Cronin, 35.

Oh yes, the game, that detail Cardinal Newman and Clayton Valley, both with 12-0 records, will be playing tonight for the high school North Coast Section Division II title at Santa Rosa High School. With a win, Cardinal Newman likely would advance to the California state championship game.

?It?s almost unbearable,? Pardi , 56 said of the shared pain of the deaths, though the immediacy of the game provides some relief. ?Both of us are lucky we have some insulation right now for that has kept us from thinking non-stop about our losses.?

Great coaches are essentially superb teachers, showing their players there is something out there greater than any one game, greater than even themselves. In this case, perspective is being dished out by the bucket.

?This game will be a great memory for all my players,? Cronin said.

Football, he said, is a process. ?You prepare, try your best and the result will take care of itself. But there is a life lesson to be learned here. Win or lose, it?s a game, just a game. Sometimes adults lose sight of that.?

These two adults haven?t, their situations made all the more intimate by what happened Nov. 16th. The North Coast Section football playoff seedings were held at Dublin High School in the East Bay. Pardi was sitting in the back row of a classroom, Cronin seated just in front of him. They didn?t know each other.

?We just started talking,? Pardi said. ?We didn?t introduce ourselves.? For 15 minutes Pardi and Cronin spoke, primarily of their families, especially of their kids, Pardi?s daughter Meghan a former water polo team captain at Loyola Marymount and Cronin?s three young children, two girls and a boy.

?I knew he was a football coach but I didn?t know his name,? Pardi said. ?But when he told me about his kids, I said, ?Don?t let anybody else coach them. You must do it.? ?

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The seeding meeting began but Cronin and Pardi continued to talk, Cronin turning around in his seat to face Pardi. We were like these two yappy boys in class who always sit in the back and never shut up,? Pardi said.

The moderator began to introduce the coaches and when he asked Cronin to stand up, Pardi felt his jaw drop. This is Paul Cronin, the coach of the private-school powerhouse Cardinals? The big obstacle to his own team?s dream of a North Coast title?

?Paul had absolutely no airs about him,? said Pardi, who was reminded of Bob Ladouceur, the legendary coach at De La Salle football coach. ?Lad is very unassuming, polite, respectful. Lad is just a kind, decent guy you would never know what he did.?

De La Salle once won 151 consecutive games. The last time De La Salle lost in the Bay Area was 1991 when Pittsburg beat De La Salle, 35-27, and the head coach of Pittsburg was, you guessed it, Herc Pardi.

?I read a book about De La Salle,? Cronin said, ?and a whole chapter was devoted to Herc. He?s a legend all to himself.? Cronin asked Pardi if he had a video copy of that 1991 game. Could Herc give to him the next time we meet? Sure, said Pardi.

The next time is tonight.

?I?m going to hand it to him before the game,? Pardi said.

The irony of their situations is not lost on Pardi or Cronin. Less than three weeks ago ?we were strangers who became friends,? said Pardi, because they were jazzed to talk about their families and jazzed that someone would listen, especially Cronin.

?When I go to meetings like that,? Cronin said, ?everybody hates Newman and I end up staying by myself.?

Not this time. Pardi and Cronin found themselves on the same side of the fence. Pardi recently sent a card and flowers to the Cronins. Twenty- one years separate them in age but fate made them brothers.

?Actually Herc is more like an uncle to me,? Cronin said.

Family, that was what brought them together and now it is family that connects them in a raw and painful way. Pardi won?t be able to have a funeral for his brother until Dec. 26, the first available date at St. Bonaventure?s church in Concord .

?It?s one-in-a-million scenario,? Pardi said of the trauma he shares with tonight?s coaching opponent . ?It?s hard to make sense out of all of it. Seems like something that should be on Oprah. It?s mind-blowing. I?m still numb. I?m just taking it one step at a time. I wish I knew a word to describe it.?

Spooky? ?Yeah, that?s a good one,? Pardi said. ?Bizarre, too. I have four bouquets of roses at home, sent to me by the staff at Clayton Valley. They have been incredibly supportive. I don?t know how they (Newman administrators) are helping Paul, but I don?t doubt they are doing the same thing.?

He is correct.

?Newman is such a small community,? Cronin said, ?and that?s what makes it so special to me. People really look out for each other.?

Including the players. Last Friday, when Clayton Valley beat Las Lomas, 30-14, to reach the NCS finals, Pardi arrived two minutes before game?s end, his brother having died just six hours before kickoff. His wife, Roxanne, and his mother, Veronica, finally wore him down. Go, Herc.

?I heard they asked for a moment of silence after making the announcement my brother had died,? Pardi said. ?My coaches said you could have heard pin drop. The silence was eerie, I was told. Then to walk into the stadium, every step felt heavy. It was like I was walking in slo-mo.? Which was made a bit easier when Pardi was told his kids busted their fannies for their coach.

What did it feel like to have a team play for him? ?Well, they were playing for somebody,? Pardi joked.

In the wake of the death of Cronin?s brother the daily conversation on the Newman campus inevitably turned to football. Does Cronin coach? Should Cronin coach? The answer was put succinctly by Jerry Robinson, the former Newman star and once a NFL mainstay. Robinson had come by the office of Newman president Mike Truesdell Wednesday to pick up a field pass for the game.

?Jerry said, ?To play is to heal and to win is to honor,? " Truesdell said.

When Paul Cronin and Herc Pardi meet before the game they will be exchanging far more than that De La Salle video. They will be creating a memory to rival anything that will happen in the game. Seasons will come and go, opportunities will be lost and gained.

But an uncle will hug his nephew in a way rare in a sport full of machismo and if you ask them, they?ll tell you they have never loved football as much as they will love it tonight.

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