Soccer in Bradford this season just won't be the same for my kids, and many others who were part of the Little Kickers York Region community.
Joseph Fernicola, better known as Coach Joe, who ran the program every Sunday with his wife, Claire, by his side, passed away unexpectedly April 18 at the age of 44.
The former Newmarket resident was known for his fun-loving, larger-than-life personality and booming loud voice on the soccer field, teaching children the fundamentals of soccer.
I first met Joe in 2016 when I signed my oldest son up for the soccer program, which introduces kids to the fundamentals of soccer. I was hesitant to sign him up because at the time he was nearly two and a wild child, who couldn't sit still for a minute to listen to instructions.
But Joe was so welcoming and reassuring and made us feel comfortable instantly. He let the kids be kids while keeping them engaged. He was a big kid himself, and I could see why everyone loved him.
Over the years we continued with the program, eventually signing my youngest son up last summer after a dreaded year of COVID restrictions and lockdowns. Joe was so excited to have both my boys on board for the season and made us feel like we were part of the family.
In the fall of 2020, Joe and Claire got married and honeymooned in Mexico. But halfway through the trip, tragedy struck when Joe accidentally fell on the newly washed floors of the hotel, suffering serious injuries that required months of rehabilitation.
I remember interviewing him and Claire after they returned from the wedding, and despite the challenges of their new temporary lifestyle while he healed, they were positive and hopeful for a full recovery, with the support of the loving community behind them.
That spring, he was back and better than ever, almost fully healed and rocking the field like usual.
The last time I saw Joe was in October 2021, at the end-of-season Halloween-themed class. He and Claire were dressed up as pirates. It was a fun, soggy, wet day and all the kids in their costumes had a blast. Little did I know that would be the last time we ever saw him.
When I saw on social media in April that Joe had passed, I couldn't believe it. What a huge loss for her and the rest of the local soccer community.
Such a young, happy, healthy, fun, guy gone just like that.
I reached out to Claire as soon as I heard to give her my condolences. I told her I wanted to do a tribute on Joe, but understandably she was overwhelmed and couldn't speak just yet.
She reached out to me a few weeks ago, letting me know about a charity soccer game happening as a tribute to Joe at York University where members of the Little Kickers community came out to honour his memory. Joe loved watching TFC games and would go often with Claire.
"It still doesn't feel real," Claire told me about Joe's passing. "It hasn't sunk in."
Despite not having any family here in Canada, (she is from England), Claire is committed to continuing Joe's legacy by taking over the Little Kickers business.
"I loved him so much, as did so many people," she said.
"Joe's legacy needs to live on. I'm going to make it work," she said. "I knew how much he loved the kickers and his job."
I am in awe of her tenacity and strength to continue the program, all for the love of her husband and the community she now calls 'home'.
Joe is what made Little Kickers what it was. And I know speaking for the Bradford Kickers community, we all miss him deeply.
One of the Bradford coaches, Amanda Cassista, says Joe helped show her who she really was.
"I coached with Joe for a few months and he never failed to make me or the kids laugh," she said. "He brought out the confidence in me that I didn’t know I had. Coaching with Joe was the best. There was not one morning I dreaded to get up. I always looked forward to coaching with Joe, having the small side talks with Claire."
"Joe taught me a lesson, and it was not to care what other people think about you. Joe had an amazing sense of humour, and he was always very caring. I am so happy I got to meet Coach Joe and even though he isn’t physically with me anymore, in my heart he will always stick with me. And I will always remember him for the amazing guy he was. Joe is in heaven now but I’m sure we will be able to hear him from all the way down here because of how loud his voice was, a voice we will all miss. No matter where Joe is, you will always be able to hear him."
Rest easy, Coach.