A life of significance

How the events of 9/11 affected Charlotte coach Charlie Skalaski

| September 11, 2017

Charlrlie Skalaski on the sidelines against Eastern Michigan. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Athletics

Each of us takes a different path which leads us to the place in which we were meant to be. Charlie Skalaski was inspired by his presence in Manhattan on 9/11 to emark on a radically different career, coaching football instead of corporate America.

After having a successful stint as a defensive back at Florida including three bowl game appearances, Skalaski remained in Gainesville to be a graduate assistant while receiving his Master’s Degree in public administration. Once he completed graduate school, the Miami-native worked his way up the corporate ladder, until he became the manager of the New York City office for Steelcase. He was there at the turn of the millennium, and also in September of 2001.

“On the morning of 9/11 I actually had an appointment downtown, at 120 Broadway, which was about three blocks, four blocks from where the Trade Centers were. As I was walking out to get to the subway to go, the first plane hit. I didn’t even know it,” Skalaski said.

A call from an associate led to Skalaski reschedule his meeting for later in the afternoon, knowing it was going to be “chaos” there.

“I knew between firetrucks and stuff, not thinking it was going to be anything of magnitude, I knew it would still be crazy,” Skalaski said.

When he returned to his office, the catastrophic nature of the situation became clear to him.

“Right about when I got back to my office, coming back up out of the subway, the second plane hit. I didn’t know that either at the time because I was in midtown,” Skalaski said. “When I walked up there, everyone was silent around the TV’s. That’s when I first got the feel for what was going on.”

With the uncertainty as to how the city would respond to the attack, Skalaski took charge. He locked down his building, brought in food and waited to see what would unfold outside.

“I didn’t know if people were going to lose their minds in New York City, if people were going to riot, if there was going to be chaos,” Skalaski said. “Fortunately, people didn’t overreact, people didn’t freak out. People just started walking because there was no more transportation, they shut everything down from downtown New York City to midtown.”

With the lack of cell phone service, getting in contact with loved ones wasn’t an easy task.

“My family was very nervous, I know my wife was because she knew I had an appointment downtown that day,” Skalaski said. “I could take the subway either to right by Wall Street or you could take it into the Trade Center, and I was 50/50 on which one I would use. So, for all she knew, I had taken the subway into the Trade Center and I could’ve been in the building.”

After the last person left his building, Skalaski began his journey home. An associate that had left earlier alerted him that the West Side Highway was open. While Skalaski trekked home on his regular route, nothing about the drive was normal.

“It’s wall-to-wall with people seven days a week, 365 days a year. You talk about an eerie feeling, I was the only car driving outbound, leaving the city. All that was driving by me were like military vehicles, busloads of NYPD officers who I guess were going down to the site,” Skalaski said.

The losses on 9/11 were felt in the areas surrounding New York City, including in Skalaski’s community, Ridgewood, New Jersey.

“We had lost I believe it was 13 people in my community that day in the towers, two of which were volunteer coaches in the football program,” Skalaski said. “I get this call out of the blue, I hadn’t told anybody about my background, that I had played and coached college football before, and it was that guy and he said ‘hey would you be interested in helping us?’”

Though he had been successful in the corporate circuit, Skalaski said he never felt “intrinsically fulfilled” in his career. But when he returned to the football world as a coach, the pieces of his life fell into place.

“It didn’t take long, it was probably three or four weeks into it that I was smitten and knew you know what, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is what God wants me to do. We’re all called on a different path in life. We need business men, but there was no intrinsic fulfillment in that arena for me. I wanted to move from being a success more to a life of significance,” Skalaski said.

Charlie Skalaski on the sidelines of the Spring Game. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Athletics

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the economy shifted in America. Steelcase, the company Skalaski worked with, downsized from 22,000 employees in September of 2001 to 11,000 a year later. Being in the upper level of management, Skalaski knew there was a high chance he would be among the next wave of cuts. He took his cue, quit his job and pursued coaching.

“I told my wife ‘I’m going to take a few months and see if I can get back in this coaching thing.’ She thought I was nuts, she thought it was a midlife crisis or something,” Skalaski said.

He tapped his contacts in the coaching world and eventually found a home in Liberty University. After making the jump from business suits and skyscrapers to gym shorts and grass fields, Skalaski had never been happier.

“I was a kid in a candy store to be honest. All of the credit goes to my wife and kids, because I went from making a pretty good living to making peanuts. I probably cut my income by 75 percent,” Skalaski said.

During his nine years with Liberty, Skalaski acted as the tight ends coach, the wide receivers coach and the recruiting coordinator. Though he received offers to leave the program for other coaching positions, Skalaski remained with Liberty until 2012. He left and became an assistant coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, he returned to Liberty in 2014, he moved to Eastern Kentucky the next year and then wound up in Charlotte in time for the 2016 season.

“I had the chance to go to a couple of really big programs, but I just didn’t feel like the head coach and I had the same philosophy about mentoring people,” Skalaski said. “That’s the big reason why I’m here is because I know Coach Lambert and I know how he feels about developing young men. I’m a big believer in whole-person development. I’m going to push you to be the best you can be academically, athletically, socially and if you so choose, spiritually. I know Coach Lambert feels the same way, so it’s been great.”

Winding up at Charlotte was “totally a God thing” for Skalaski.

The character of the coaches already in the Queen City led to Skalaski further investigating the program as a viable job option. Dean Hood, who left the Charlotte program after the 2016 season, had worked previously with Skalaski at Eastern Kentucky. Hood was the one who put Skalaski on the radar for the 49ers coaching staff.

“I knew about Coach Lambert and the type of man he was and I knew about Coach Hood and the type of man he was, and said if those guys are invested in this, then it might be something worth looking into. I said I’ll do this for a year and let’s see where the chips fall. Lo and behold, I did it for a year and the opportunity arose for me to stay here,” Skalaski said.

After working as an analyst in the 2016 season, Skalaski is now the special teams coordinator for the 49ers. It isn’t just his passion for the game that causes Skalaski to love his job – it is the platform his profession provides to shape young men.

“I love football, I love X’s and O’s, but what I really love is being a mentor and having a positive sphere of influence on young men. It’s really a chance for me to pay it forward.”

 

 

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Category:Football, Sports

Kathleen Cook Kathleen Cook is the sports editor of the Niner Times and from Wake Forest, North Carolina. When the junior communication major/journalism minor isn't covering the 49ers, she enjoys spending time with her family, friend, and dog. Kathleen can also be found cheering on the Panthers every Sunday and rooting for the Washington Nationals.

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  1. Debbe Hilk says:

    Great feature story !

Kathleen Cook Kathleen Cook is the sports editor of the Niner Times and from Wake Forest, North Carolina. When the junior communication major/journalism minor isn't covering the 49ers, she enjoys spending time with her family, friend, and dog. Kathleen can also be found cheering on the Panthers every Sunday and rooting for the Washington Nationals.

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