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St. Anne's-Belfield football alums return to help new coach Joe Sandoe restore program back to a championship level

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The St. Anne’s-Belfield football program has a long-standing tradition of success, winning seven Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state championships under coaches David Bard and John Blake.

This fall, three former players have returned to the sidelines to help new coach Joe Sandoe restore the Saints’ football program to that championship level.

Kyle Long, who won back-to-back state titles with STAB in 2006 and 2007 and Kareem Johnson, who helped the Saints capture state championships in 2014 and 2015 returned to Charlottesville to join Sandoe’s staff as assistant coaches. Jimmy Zunka, who won back-to-back state titles in 1998-99 remained on staff after serving as an assistant under Blake for the past nine years.

“The fact that we have three STAB football alumni on our staff speaks volumes of the connections they developed as student-athletes at STAB and how positive their experience was here,” Sandoe said. “All three of them want to help give that experience back to our current student-athletes and are giving up a lot of their time to serve in our program.”

After retiring from the National Football League this past summer, Long reached out to Sandoe to hear about his vision for the program.

“I jumped at the opportunity,” Long said. “I got Joe’s number and reached out, asking if there was anything I could do to help the team. Loved to hear that he was planning on having a few former Saints on staff to help out.”

STAB has always held a special place in Long’s heart. After graduating, he’s continued to stay close to the school, especially the football program where he experienced so much success.

“Playing at STAB gave me a tremendous safe space in which I could have both success and failures, and still be safe,” Long said. “I did everything I could as a student at STAB — from musicals to sports. Friendships with students that have lasted 15-plus years and relationships with teachers, that to this day, I can call for advice.”

Even though he was a Pro Bowl lineman in the National Football League with the Chicago Bears, he never imagined that coaching would be in his future.

“I learned that getting out of your comfort zone, particularly early on in life, will set you up for success down the road,” Long said. “Now that my professional playing career is over, it seemed right for me to return to the field that I learned to play this great game with great guys around me.”

In addition to his coaching duties, Long has remained entrenched in professional football as an analyst with the NFL Network. He also is a regular guest on his brother’s podcast, ‘Green Light with Chris Long.”

“Balancing life as an NFL analyst and a high school coach can be challenging at times because I have to remember that these kids are in high school and I’m not out there working with Aaron Donald or Von Miller,” Long said. “But at the end of the day, this great game provided me with many great opportunities to further myself. I owe it to the game of football and to those kids at STAB who share the same dreams I shared when I was their age.”

Sandoe said Long’s influence on the team has been massive.

“Kyle Long is such a valuable resource for us,” he said. “Despite his schedule, and all of the opportunities he could have, Kyle chooses to invest in our program and our players. High-level performance doesn’t always equate to effective teaching, but Kyle is able to take his knowledge and experience from his NFL career and package it into chunks that our offensive line understands and benefits them. He’s got the gift of a teacher and the knowledge of a professional. He would never say those two things about himself because he is so humble, but we are measurably better with him around.”

For Long, the opportunity to coach at his alma mater is something he never thought he’d do.

“I used to laugh and say I would never coach because I didn’t want to work with knuckleheads like myself,” he said. “But now that I do work with said knuckleheads, it is a lot of fun. I can see why John Blake enjoyed being a coach for so long.”

The three-time Pro Bowler’s presence with the STAB players has been well received. Senior offensive lineman Max Buford was in disbelief when he showed up for preseason practice and Long was named his position coach.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I became,” Buford said. “I have tried to soak up as much knowledge as possible from them every chance I get.”

But Long’s wisdom isn’t limited to one position.

“One of the things I love about Kyle is that he’s not just there for football, but he knows how to encourage and engage our players in a way that they feel valued and seen. His impact is not just limited to the offensive line. He is out there helping us practice better and coaching up anything he sees.”

Johnson joined the staff after a solid college playing career at William & Mary. He moved back to Central Virginia to spend more time with family, but felt a calling to coach at his alma mater.

“For me, and I’m sure the rest of the alumni, there is just a love for being out on that field, and you can never escape wanting to be around the game,” Johnson said. “I personally never got a chance to play with Kyle Long or Jimmy Zunka, but we just have this bond of being alumni and former players and we just always want to help the program and students, as well as the school.”

Johnson is working with the Saints’ skill position players and has already left his mark on this team.

“He has connected well with players and been able to utilize his football experience in helping our team,” Sandoe said.

Johnson has fond memories of his playing days at STAB. He remembers playing with his best friend, Patrick Blake, in football, basketball, and lacrosse and both growing as players under Coach John Blake. He hopes to build similar connections with the next generation of STAB players.

“Coaching high school kids is probably more of my style because I like helping their development and skills,” he said. “I appreciated Coach Blake for watching me grow. He knew what I was capable of and pushed me to be the best person I could be. It only feels right to give back and help these kids because many of them spoke about watching me play as they were in middle school and I’ve even known at least one of them since they were a kid, and to see him, as well as the rest, compete now and teach them things I learned along the way from many different coaches is special.”

Now, Johnson enjoys the opportunity to join this talented staff of former players.

“I remember watching Kyle play, never got a chance to watch Zunka play, but hearing their stories is always fun,” Johnson said. “Plenty of alums stop by in practices and games and always keep in touch even after. Even just meeting the families that stick around or have younger kids enrolled is always nice.”

Zunka is in a unique position as the third alumnus on staff. Not only did he win two state titles as a player at STAB. He spent the last nine years as an assistant coach at his alma mater, as well as serving as the Upper School’s Dean of Students.

“I’m the old guy in this group, so I didn’t have an opportunity to play with them,” Zunka said. “I did coach Kareem, so I’m thrilled that they are coaching this year. Their expertise, experience and energy have been so good for the players. We are incredibly lucky to have them.”

Like the other assistants, Zunka credits Blake for inspiring him throughout his journey as a player and adult and is happy to remain a part of a program that has had such a profound impact on his life.

“I think anyone who played football on our field, whether it was grass or turf, are connected and want to see this program continue to be successful,” Zunka said. “There is a particularly strong bond between the players who played for Coach Blake over his 25 years coaching here. The values he instilled in us, embodied in ‘The Main in the Glass’ poem he read before every game, connects us all, whether we played together or not. Yet, Coach Blake also made sure that we understood and respected the football tradition that the teams established before he took the helm, such as the legends of the 1992 championship team. I’m excited to see Coach Sandoe carry on this tradition.”

Sandoe said Zunka’s coaching abilities are unmatched.

“He is an encourager, and a teacher of the game,” Sandoe said. “I rely on Jimmy’s wisdom and his institutional knowledge for many of my decisions and am grateful that he has helped me in my transition to Charlottesville and STAB.”

The players credit Johnson, Long and Zunka for giving them a unique perspective on what it means to wear the Saints uniform.

“All three of them are very knowledgeable about the game and understand the strong football tradition we have at STAB, which makes learning under them an amazing experience,” Buford said. “I will take away how each of them preaches the importance of giving your all, every day, no matter what you are doing and no matter how big, fast or strong you are. For them to say this, after playing at very high levels, speaks to its importance.”

After spending the last two months working with him, Long and his fellow alumni coaches believe the program is in great hands under Sandoe.

“I could go on and on and on about the attention to detail that Joe Sandoe has implemented into this program,” Long said. “I love what he is building here in Charlottesville, and having seen what it takes to win here. I believe that Coach Sandoe will return this football program to the glory days of White Pumpkin Hell Up on Faulconer Drive. I love his youth and his energy and his knowledge for the game and persistence in his quest for cleaner, faster, and more detailed in everything. The boys on this football team will be better guys as a result of playing for Coach Sandoe.”

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