WORCESTER — Bancroft School teacher and coach Mark O’Brien saw something special in Emmanuel “Manny” Bangandozou back in 2013.
Likewise, Bangandozou — then only 13 years old and an eighth-grader at Worcester’s Nativity School — saw something special in O’Brien, the varsity boys’ basketball coach at Bancroft.
“I remember this very tall man when he came to my house, talking to my mom about the benefits of going to high school at Bancroft. He walked into our home, and we loved him right away,” recalled Bangandozou, who was 7, when his family emigrated here from Cameroon.
For Bangandozou, though, and for a multitude of O’Brien’s family, friends, and former players and students, this week has brought deep sadness.
The 54-year-old O’Brien, who taught physical education and coached basketball, cross-country, golf and baseball at Bancroft for 31 years, died unexpectedly Monday at UMass Memorial Medical Center—University Campus.
“I had just texted coach and later talked to him on Father’s Day as I’ve always done. He sounded so good. I was in complete shock when I found out the next day,” said Bangandozou, who graduated from Bancroft in 2017 as the school’s all-time leading basketball scorer with 2,236 points.
“Coach O’Brien was my hero, a father-figure to me, my everything. I’m forever grateful for what he did for me. I wouldn’t have been the player I was without a great coach like him.”
And that’s a sentiment felt by countless Bancroft School student-athletes.
O’Brien was named Coach of the Year in the Eastern Independent League 18 times — three in cross-country, six in baseball and nine in basketball including at the end of the most recent 2019-20 season.
In addition, during his long tenure, he coached his teams to 20 EIL Championships, amassed 387 varsity basketball wins, and led the 2001 girls’ cross-country team and the 2011 boys’ basketball team to the New England Prep School Athletic Council Championship.
“This has been a very tough week for all of us, for sure,” said Bancroft field hockey, girls’ basketball and softball coach Jane Gerhardt, who arrived at Bancroft a decade before O’Brien and worked closely with him in the physical education department.
“First and foremost Mark was a friend through good times and bad. We taught together, shared stories about life, about kids, about teaching and coaching and helping each other. We took a lot of pride in our longevity in the phys ed department.
“We would talk every day, about games, practices or whatever was happening in our lives. Mark was my go-to guy, no doubt about it, and he is someone who you really just can’t replace.”
Steve Kelley, the former longtime Bancroft athletic director and a current physical education teacher at the school, shared an office with O’Brien.
“Jane, Mark and I worked together for 30 years,” Kelley said. “Mark was competitive about all the sports he coached and he loved to win, but it was always about the kids, never about him. He taught life lessons.”
Kelley recalled the times when the 6-foot-4 O’Brien would lead his entire team into funeral homes to pay their respects at wakes following the deaths of area sports officials, or the time when a student-athlete from a rival school was killed in a car accident.
“Mark cared so much and he taught kids what it takes to become better people,” Kelley said. “I’m going to miss him. It’s very sad and just feels like this shouldn’t have happened. I don’t want to go back to the office and see that empty chair.”
Former Bancroft student Mackenzie Melemed, who studied at The Juilliard School in New York City, and is now a renowned classical pianist, posted on Facebook about O’Brien: “I was partial to him because he awarded me the eighth-grade PE Award even though my only qualification was a positive attitude. He was my golf coach and gym teacher. He was always so kind and supportive even in the seven years following my graduation. Coach OB was loved by the entire Bancroft community, and it’s devastating to know he is no longer with us.”
Bancroft chemistry teacher John Beauregard noted that because the school educates students from pre-K to grade 12, and the physical education department covers all classes, most of the students had O’Brien as a teacher.
“And Mark was a great coach,” Beauregard said. “I was always impressed with the progress his hoop teams would make over the course of each season. His players loved him. But his reach went far beyond the athletic department.
“One of my lasting memories of Mark is watching him run the touch football tournament at our annual fall ‘Mountain Day’ at Wachusett Mountain. Only Mark could run that operation all by himself. He was an incredibly caring and supportive colleague.”
Former Bancroft standout baseball player Jordan Papula, who recently graduated from Boston College added: “From anyone’s first meeting with Coach O’Brien, you always felt that he was someone who was on your side. He loved winning, but more than that he loved seeing us reach our full potential and believe in ourselves.”
Bancroft Head of School Trey Cassidy said: “Coach O’Brien was the heart and soul of Bancroft spirit. He was a Bulldog through and through. His enthusiasm for teaching and coaching was only surpassed by his affinity and care for the students that were lucky enough to call him ‘Coach.’
“More important than wins and championship banners, Mark was deeply concerned about the human beings he was working with. That level of care, love and attention was in everything he did here as an advisor, teacher and coach. Whether it was a player, a kid in his PE class, or someone in the hallways, he was committed to making sure they were becoming the best version of themselves, and he did that for his entire adult working life at Bancroft.”
O’Brien, who was a star student-athlete at Arlington High School, and later at Lyndon State College in Vermont, lived in Holden.
He leaves his wife, Kristen, and four children, Shannon, Connor, Molly and Caroline.
Relatives and friends are invited to visit with Mr. O’Brien’s family, 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday in the Miles Funeral Home, 1158 Main Street, Holden.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated with family and close friends at 10 a.m. on Monday in St. Mary’s Church, 114 Princeton Street, Jefferson.
Donations, to benefit his children, may be made to: The Coach O’Brien Memorial Fund, Leominster Credit Union, 715 Main Street, Holden, 01520.
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