John Fenningham is known as a great football player and coach.
But he’s remembered more for being a great man.
Fenningham, a three-sport athlete before graduating from Father Judge High School in 1972, spent most of his life helping young men become better football players, but more than that he made sure they became better men.
He had coaching stints at his alma mater and at Penn Charter as well as St. Matt’s. But more than teaching football lessons, he taught life lessons.
Now, all those who were touched by him are now missing him.
Fenningham passed away suddenly on Feb. 6. He was 66.
Fenningham is the father of John K. Fenningham Jr. (Christina) and the late Lauren Fenningham, brother of Eileen Mitchell, Kathy McCollum (Charles), Maureen Mattern, Terrence Fenningham (Martha), Thomas J. Fenningham (Patricia) and James Fenningham (Tina). He also had a very special bond with his nieces and nephews.
Since his untimely passing, the memories are flooding in.
All bring tears to his friends’ eyes.
“He loved football, but more than that, he loved his family,” said his nephew Ryan Fenningham. “He was the type of guy who made everyone feel important. Nephew, brother, son, mailman, fifth-string running back. He would talk to you and you would be the center of attention.
“When he was coaching, he made a point to make sure the little guy was as important as the superstar. He was always the man, he was a great athlete and a great coach, a great person. But when you were around him, he wanted everyone to feel like the man.”
Fenningham was the man at Judge.
He was a three-sport star, playing football, basketball and baseball. Then he went on to play football at Maryland.
He then got involved in coaching, having stints at his alma mater and Penn Charter as well as helping out with St. Matthew’s football program.
“Assistant coaches, look, nobody gets rich coaching at the high school level, but he was a lifer, he did it all throughout his adult life and he did it because he liked to see kids get better,” said Tom Coyle, who played for Fenningham at Judge, then coached with him at Judge and Penn Charter. “The joy all of us get is by seeing guys really reach their full potential. Guys that play for him just love him.
“He was an outstanding athlete, a great friend and a fierce competitor. He always wanted to give people an opportunity. We would be in meetings, and he’d want to win. He would fight like hell in a meeting. He would want his guys to be given the tough assignments. He wanted to see people get better.
“It’s tough with being an assistant, they do all the work. A head coach is what it is, but assistants do everything. You would have to push the guys, but also be their friend. He did that. His guys loved him.”
That was true wherever he went.
When St. Matt’s started a football team, Bill Donohoe was the coach and he needed a little help. He called his old friend, who came right over and helped.
“He was so selfless, we really tapped into his knowledge, especially on defense,” Donohoe said. “He was a motivator of young people, and he loved the game of football. He enjoyed helping and seeing kids do well.
“I told his brother Jimmy that John was larger than life. He was one of those guys that commanded your respect and was larger than life. He was as strong as they come, tough, but a very soft-spoken man. A very loyal family man, very loyal friend. He just commanded everyone’s respect, but he was a good man.”
That respect went beyond the football field.
“I hired him, and he did a great job for us,” said Bill Ciavarelli, captain of the North Wildwood Beach Patrol. “He was very physically fit, took good care of his area, and he was a very personable guy. That’s a big part of this job, and he was great with that.
“They would call him the Marlboro man because he was so strong. He took the job very seriously.”
But he wasn’t all work and no play.
Fenningham always had time to make others feel good, and he did that even when he was going through intense football meetings.
“I know he loved coaching his son (at Judge), he was very proud of him,” Coyle said. “He made everyone feel special. Everyone around the program. When they were younger, my kids would tag along, and he was this older guy who was an aggressive coach, but then he would take them over to the vending machine and buy them a box of candy.
“I was blessed to call him a friend, coach with him and see how he reacted to really, really good things and we lost some tough games, but there were bigger losses. Whether it was before games, during games, after games or even sitting down the shore before the season began, he was a guy you wanted to be around.”
It’s particularly hard for his friends and family because Fenningham was the type of guy who would be there for others in tough times like this.
But his memories certainly offer some comfort.
“I kind of miss the way he made me feel special,” his nephew said. “He was a glory days-type of guy, but not about himself. He would talk about when I played at St. Matt’s or Judge. ‘Remember the TD you had against Calvary.’ You don’t talk about it on a daily basis, it was always memories.
“Anywhere I’d go with a Father Judge sweatshirt in Northeast Philadelphia, or Wildwood, people would ask if you knew the Fenninghams. I would say I was a Fenningham, and they would say they know John.
“We were really close. He was proud that we were both All-Catholic. My dad said we were very similar, I just hope to be the same kind of great man he was. It’s a lot to live up to. He was a great man.”
In lieu of flowers, the family would like donations to the Father Judge Athletic Department, 3301 Solly Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19136, in John’s memory.