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A Life: Robert Edson, 1967-2013; ‘He Always Was Able to Listen and Help in Any Way He Could’

Rob Edson, second from left, is shown with his son Thomas, wife Sue and daughter Tracey in a recent family photograph. Edson, a Lebanon native who spent more than two decades in college athletic administration, most of them at Syracuse University, died on Sept. 14, 2013, of an apparent heart attack at the age of 45. (Family photograph)

Rob Edson, second from left, is shown with his son Thomas, wife Sue and daughter Tracey in a recent family photograph. Edson, a Lebanon native who spent more than two decades in college athletic administration, most of them at Syracuse University, died on Sept. 14, 2013, of an apparent heart attack at the age of 45. (Family photograph)

Lebanon — Brittany Almonte wasn’t sure of the route her post-college life would travel until Rob Edson helped unfold the map.

As the two sat in the stands at an Onondaga (N.Y.) Community College men’s basketball game, Almonte — herself a former OCC student-athlete — and Edson, the school’s relatively new athletic director, struck up a conversation.

Or maybe it was an inquisition: Having worked with Almonte’s father at nearby Syracuse University, Edson owned an innate curiosity about the young woman’s goals.

“At that time, I was just taking classes in my master’s program, although I hadn’t been accepted into the program yet,” Almonte recalled recently. “He was really supportive, all about getting an education or furthering it.

“It just became a conversation: ‘What would your dream job be?’ I said I’d like to work with student-athletes. He said, ‘We could use someone like that,’ and it took off from there.”

Almonte is now the coordinator of student-athlete development at OCC, a junior college of 13,000 southwest of Syracuse, N.Y. It’s about four miles from Syracuse, where Edson spent 20 years as an athletic department administrator before dialing down his professional life in favor of something more suitable to his family.

“There were a lot of emails back and forth, a lot of back-and-forth conversation,” said Almonte, who played two years of women’s basketball at OCC and later returned to coach. “He kept telling me, ‘Finish school, and I’ll take care of you.’ He was definitely the driving force in my education, and so supportive of it.”

Edson, a three-sport athlete at Lebanon High School who eventually grafted his collegiate, professional and personal life to Syracuse, died on Sept. 14, 2013. He was 45.

Having checked in on OCC athletic activities that Saturday morning — including stopping by to visit with head trainer Chris Downey — Edson returned to his Jamesville, N.Y., home and died of an apparent heart attack while mowing his lawn.

In the wake of the news, the SU and OCC communities wrapped themselves around Edson’s wife, Sue, and their two children, Thomas and Tracey. The people Edson touched — students, coaches, co-workers, friends all — returned the attention and affection he’d showered upon them simply by being himself.

“He always stopped in after a game and ask, ‘Are there any injuries? How are you feeling? How’s your wife?’ ” Downey said. “He cared more about everyone else than himself.”

The ‘Third Coach’

During a coaching career spanning more than 30 years and 500 victories, the late Lang Metcalf routinely employed a 15-player roster on his Lebanon High basketball teams. Rarely, if ever, did he have someone akin to Rob Edson in his orbit.

Edson didn’t possess star talent. He was neither the kid who carried the basketball (or football or baseball) teams on which he played, but neither was he the kid who only saw floor action when the outcome was set. Edson’s love for sports, however, manifested itself into a level of observation that sometimes served Metcalf in unique ways.

“Lang would always tell me he’s like a third coach on the bench, because he saw things out on the floor that a lot of kids on the bench couldn’t,” recalled Paul Edson, of Lebanon, Rob’s uncle. “The coaches are so busy looking at other stuff. Lang was very wide open to Robbie giving feedback — at the appropriate time.”

Paul Edson’s nephew had “a vision,” and it rewarded him on multiple levels over multiple years.

“I remember before we played in the (NHIAA Class I) state championship game our senior year in baseball, in ’86,” recalled Lebanon High classmate Kevin Foley, a Meriden native who is now a private school administrator in South Hadley, Mass. “We were all kind of pushing because we’d had some pretty good teams in the past and had never won anything. We all realized this was it, our last shot.

“Robbie always had this perspective: ‘OK, just do what we’ve been doing all year long and we’ll be OK.’ He grounded us a bit. … As a teammate, he was a rock. He was a guy that never went too high and never got too low.”

Lebanon won that title, its last baseball crown.

Edson, Foley and Plainfield’s Dave Dupree bonded through sports, even though they each came from different towns and didn’t meet until high school. Afternoons would be spent shooting basketball, playing Wiffle ball; night or weekends, watching Boston Celtics games on television.

“He may not have played as much as the other kids,” Dupree remembered, “but he was well-prepared, into the game, like another coach on the bench. He was very, very good at interpreting the flow of the game.”

So by the time of his Lebanon graduation in 1986, Edson had his mind set on a destination that would define his adult life.

“I remember the day he said he’d try Syracuse; it was something that seemed too big for us,” Foley said. “One day in the high school cafeteria — I think it was at the end of junior year or the very beginning of senior — we were all at a table, and Robbie came in, had a brochure and said, ‘I’m gonna go to Syracuse.’ What?

“We’re all looking at Plymouth State, UNH. He’s going to Syracuse. C’mon, that’s too big, that’s big-time, Derrick Coleman and stuff. And he stuck to his word.”

Tied to Syracuse

A visit to SU’s Newhouse School of Public Communications made Syracuse the one and only place for Edson once his Lebanon High days were done. The dome sealed the deal.

“From what he told me, he fell in love with Newhouse and the Carrier Dome,” said Edson’s wife, Sue Cornelius Edson, the university’s assistant athletic director for communications. “He enrolled in (Newhouse), then changed his major to psychology. … I thought I would be the next great sportscaster. When I came to visit, I absolutely fell in love with the entire place, the quad, the campus, the people.”

Meeting as sophomore resident advisors in Flint Hall, the two would tie their personal and professional lives to their alma mater.

Graduating in 1990 and spending a year as a SU administrative intern, Edson moved to the University of West Virginia to complete a master’s in sports management while his wife-to-be — they would marry in June 1996 — settled into a start in sports information. The two maintained a long-distance relationship until Edson answered an opportunity to return north, again as an intern, in 1992.

“He was far enough along to be hired as an intern when Syracuse had to report some internal problems to the NCAA, so Rob was kept on as a second-year intern because he’d worked with the assistant AD for facilities, who did compliance at the time,” Sue Edson said. “Part of what Syracuse decided to do was in addition to hiring a full-time compliance officer, they needed an assistant. And Rob was kept on.”

He rose through SU’s athletic department from there: compliance assistant to director, associate AD for finance and team services and, finally, senior associate AD for administration and chief financial officer. His roles touched multiple sports — from smaller non-revenue programs to the big-timers of football and basketball. The bonds he formed on the job often matured into friendships.

“We spent a lot of time together at work and spent a lot of time together for vacations at the Outer Banks,” said Peter Sala, the managing director of the Carrier Dome. “If we could get away in the winter, we’d do things in the winter. We had a standing date with our wives on Valentine’s Day.”

“He was very much a people person; he always put others first,” Sue Edson added. “He always was able to listen and help in any way he could. That endeared him to a lot of people.”

The Edsons found Syracuse life enjoyable, although it often took them away from home with the teams or responsibilities to which they were assigned. So when Rob decided to break from Syracuse in 2011 to become Onondaga Community College’s AD — “He wasn’t looking; it’s just that the opportunity presented itself,” his wife said — it came with the belief that their family would benefit in the long run.
“I remember when Rob told our kids that he had a new job, the first thing out of my son’s mouth — he was 12 at the time — was, ‘I’m not moving,’ ” she said. “Rob said, ‘Good news: You don’t have to.’ ”

Freed from some of the burdens that come with a major university athletic program, Edson spent last summer ferrying his son to lacrosse camps around the Northeast. When he could, he combined the trips with reunions with old Lebanon friends.

“Ironically, this past summer — it might have been July — he was traveling to some lacrosse tournament, and without contacting them he showed up at my parents’ house a half-mile from where I actually lived (in Massachusetts),” Foley said. “He was trying to find me. He called me on my cell. He came over with Thomas and hung out for an hour and a half. It was a good chat, a good talk. Then he was in his van and off to the next destination.”

Family Time

When Rob Edson learned that Downey and his wife were expecting their first child, he made sure they understood lessons he learned with his own family.

The Edsons’ joint careers at Syracuse meant family time came at a premium. They made sure to carve out time for their children, but the OCC move made it much easier.

“The one main reason why he left Syracuse was because he had a son and daughter and both were heavily involved with athletics,” said Downey, the community college’s athletic trainer, who welcomed his daughter about two months after Edson’s death. “He told me, ‘Value every time you get home. Kiss your wife. Tell her you love her and make time for each other.’

“In athletics, you can get wrapped up in it. Twelve- and 13-hour days happen easily. … Just enjoy every moment, because you don’t know how fast it goes.”

There is still an element of shock for the people who knew Edson and lost him at such a young age. His effect upon them has led a variety of creative remembrances.

Sala and his staff painted Edson’s initials into the Carrier Dome turf, beside the end zone where he usually stood, before Syracuse’s first home football game following his death. Dome staff and sports information workers all dressed in sweater vests, ties and khakis for the contest, Edson’s preferred choice of attire.

Two OCC athletes turned a Twitter hashtag, #RiseUpForRob, into a T-shirt fundraiser, with proceeds earmarked for a scholarship in Edson’s name.

Brittany Almonte started a new job.

In her student-athlete development position at OCC, Almonte now plays the role in others’ lives that Edson played in hers. She’ll set student-athletes up with tutors or other means of academic support, help with scheduling or making the transition from high school, anything that increases the possibility of that OCC undergraduate completing an associate’s degree and advancing to a four-year college. Edson’s bosses made sure his plans for Almonte came to be even if he wasn’t there to see it through.

“My job didn’t exist before Rob and didn’t really exist with Rob; I had a job description, but when he passed I didn’t think it would happen,” Almonte said. “He was a pen-and-paper person. He had all these things written down, and he carried a gigantic planner with him with everything that could possibly happen. He had so many cool ideas he wanted to happen.”

And he touched so many people along the way.

“Even before Lang died, I’d talk with him in church and he’d be saying, ‘How’s Robbie doing? Boy, I really miss him,’ ” Paul Edson recalled.

“Robbie had a way. He had a demeanor about him: laid back, positive, perpetual smile. He was a very, very difficult young man not to like.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.