Tom Bonfigli began talking, his story twisting and turning like a mile-long strand of spaghetti. A labyrinth emerged. The tears, the anguish, the exhilaration, the peace, it's all there along his path, leading him to where he is now. And it's not, as one might assume, to Sacramento, where he is two days away from his team playing for the state basketball championship. He is in a place much more vital.
"It's a blessing," said the Cardinal Newman basketball coach, "not to wake up in the morning and wonder what I did last night."
His mind is clear, as is his conscience. Bonfigli is home, at the school he loves, coaching and teaching. It sounds so simple and ordinary. Until he explains how he got here.
"Some people find it overwhelming," Bonfigli said.
That's from their perspective. Imagine his. Imagine if Bonfigli hadn't remained clean and sober since March 11, 1996, if he hadn't stopped drinking after 24 years, if he weren't a recovering alcoholic.
"I wouldn't be coaching or teaching at Cardinal Newman," Bonfigli said. "My sponsor told me I'd be in an institution, a hospital or dead. He's probably right."
Those dark destinations were once impossible to imagine. He grew up in Santa Rosa and cleared tables at the legendary Lena's, a Santa Rosa bar and restaurant named for his grandmother.
A 1971 Newman graduate, a 1975 Santa Clara graduate in political science, Bonfigli was going to be a lawyer when an unsolicited call came. Would he be an assistant coach at Newman in football, basketball and track? Bonfigli loved it and the kids loved him. In 1980, he became the head basketball coach. After 14 years he had a 280-103 record. He had become a fixture.
"I was a functioning alcoholic," Bonfigli said. "I partied. I raised heck. I was obnoxious, judgmental, condescending. I knew I drank too much but I didn't see it as critical. I was doing my job."
A week before school was to begin in August 1994, then-Newman principal Tom Beecher called Bonfigli into his office. Bonfigli had a clause in his teaching contract unique to him that prohibited alcohol consumption. Beecher asked Bonfigli if he had a drink during the summer. Bonfigli said he had.
"I am terminating your contract with Cardinal Newman as teacher and coach," he recalled Beecher saying. "Effective immediately. If you have any questions, contact the Diocesan lawyers."
Bonfigli was speechless. He had not seen it coming. He was numb, in shock. He had been planning to lead a powerhouse team that fall, one he coached during the summer to a 57-3 record. Devastated, angry, feeling betrayed, Bonfigli did some construction work that fall and volunteered as an assistant varsity coach in Novato. No coaching jobs were open.
"The Santa Rosa School District wasn't going to hire me," Bonfigli said. "I was blackballed."
By the following summer, Bonfigli was floundering. Out of the blue came another call. Justin-Siena in Napa was looking for a teacher who would coach basketball. Bonfigli applied. Justin-Siena principal Greg Schmitz called. Among other things Schmitz asked Bonfigli about his drinking.
"I have a drinking problem," Bonfigli said, "and I'm trying to get it under control. I haven't figured it out yet."
Schmitz was not discouraged. A follow-up interview convinced Justin-Siena officials of Bonfigli's sincerity. He was hired. He said he didn't drink during the season. The Justin-Siena basketball program offered a challenge. Seven kids were on the team, including freshmen. They didn't even know how to get into the proper basketball stance.