UPPER DARBY >> As Larry Flood neared the end of his two-and-a-half year battle with cancer, he and his wife, Laura, broached one more in a long line of distressing conversations.
In time, funeral arrangements would be made, and Larry was adamant that he didn’t want his life remembered with solemn reminiscence. Enough tears have been shed, Larry said, and if the many people he’d touched in his life came together on his account, he wished it to be in celebration, not mourning.
As Laura pondered how to make that happen, she suggested the one thing, beside the family that had fought by his side, that brought him the most joy: In lieu of flowers, how about asking people to make donations to the Upper Darby boys soccer team?
“He said, ‘That’s perfect. That’s what I want,” Laura recalled. “He just wanted to give back to those kids one last time.”
For Upper Darby players past and present, Flood’s spiritual presence endures long after his death on Sept. 12 at the age of 47.
It’s reflected in the Royals seniors, who played three years with Flood as their varsity coach and for legions more who knew Flood as a JV coach and omnipresent assistant. And it’s revealed by a coaching staff that did as Flood did … returning to their alma mater to tutor future generations.
Flood was diagnosed with cancer in April 2014, the spring after his first season in what everyone knew to be his dream job. A long-time assistant to Tom Farr, his high school coach in the mid-1980s, Flood took over upon Farr’s retirement.
Through the next two years, even as he underwent chemotherapy treatments, Flood rarely missed a game or practice, often wearing a fanny pack with a device that administered multi-day infusions of chemo drugs. He missed one game while hospitalized with a blood clot, despite what Laura called his best attempts to persuade doctors to discharge him.
After the diagnosis, Laura never broached the subject of Larry scaling back his coaching responsibilities, knowing the inevitable response.
“That’s where his heart was,” said Laura, who met Larry when they were classmates at Upper Darby. “That’s the only place he ever really wanted to coach.”
“He never gave up, and the glass was always half full and never half empty,” said West Chester East coach Charlie Dodds, who hired Flood as an assistant in his first stint at East in the late 1990s and preceded Flood as a player at Upper Darby by three years. “It’s a testament that he was still going through chemo and still on the sidelines.”
Flood’s players and coaches were kept apprised of his condition. But his lead-by-example dedication largely remained unspoken, even as the staff at Upper Darby to whom Laura remains immensely grateful doted over his care, ensuring he stayed hydrated and out of the sun during games.
Sometimes his players needed a reminder, current head coach Adam Edgar said, as Flood jumped into drills with a gusto perhaps ill-advised for someone whose body underwent several orthopedic surgeries before his illness. But there was no denying Flood in his element.
“His commitment was just unreal,” senior goalie Daniel Lista said. “He’d come to practice every day. He’d be here for us. He’d do anything for us.”
“He always said his kids saved his life,” Laura said. “They kept giving him the strength and the courage, along with his family, to do what he had to do and to fight.”
Flood gravitated back to the field after his playing days at Penn State-Delco. A former corrections officer and a trained chef, he volunteered for Farr’s soccer camps in his early 20s and leapt at the chance to come home when Farr offered a job.
Family and soccer have always been intertwined for the Floods. The couple’s three kids — Larry Jr., Andrew and Samantha — all played soccer at Upper Darby, Andrew with Larry Sr. as his JV coach.
Edgar, a contemporary of Andrew’s, and JV coach Rory Pitter followed Flood’s path from player to coach. Flood’s imprint is clear.
“It was a hard thing to watch because it was almost like we lost a father,” Pitter said. “He was a father to the program, so everybody was devastated. That’s part of the reason why I came back after graduating five years ago. I knew he was hurting, so I came to help him out. Him not being here, I figured I’d stay around, and hopefully he’s watching us. I’m working to be a better coach, inspired by him.”
Everyone has their favorite stories of Flood, and Laura was moved by how many tributes poured in via social media in recent weeks. He had an innate sense of what his players needed and the district’s on- and off-field challenges of bringing together such a diverse group springing from divergent soccer and family backgrounds. Whether it was rides to and from practice or postseason cookouts at his house or just a safe space where students, particularly those new to the United States, could express themselves in a familiar medium, Flood was always there.
“He would always tell me, ‘Daniel, I understand what’s going on. I’ve been here. Just listen to me, just go by what I’m saying,’” said senior forward Daniel Willie, who has played for Flood since emigrating from Liberia before high school. “He would be able to calm me down. Some of those things that he would tell me, because of his experience, when I go home and certain problems happen, I think about it. I’m like, yes, this is what he was telling me. Of course, he was telling them about a soccer perspective, but I can take it to the other side of life.”
Pitter calls Flood his most influential coach. After Pitter scored two goals in each of his first two JV games, Flood promised he would pay his college tuition if he kept up that pace, a promise Pitter didn’t quite believe until Laura told him just how serious her husband was.
The deal never came to fruition. But Flood’s intense belief inspired Pitter, not just on the field or in his studies at West Chester University, but in every aspect of his life.
“He’d do whatever it took to get me on the right path,” Pitter said. “He’s been like a father to me ever since that.”
To call Flood’s passing a rallying cry for the Royals short-sells how lasting and profound his message is. The team has struggled, going 3-3-1 and winning just one of five Central League matches.
But in the first game after Flood’s death, Upper Darby produced its most complete performance of the season, drawing an unbeaten Lower Merion side. Lista, who had a closer connection than most to the goalkeeper in Flood, made 10 saves in a man-of-the-match performance.
“I was just trying to play for him, and I played one of the best games of my life,” Lista said. “I know he’s watching over me and guiding me.”
It’s not a matter of winning one for Flood; his tutelage sought to imbue players with more wisdom than a win column could disclose.
Instead, Willie says, it’s about doing justice to Flood’s legacy.
“Before we play, that’s what we say,” Willie said. “You’re not playing for yourself anymore. You’re playing for someone that is in front of you, somebody that is looking up to you now. (Larry’s) not here, but what was he standing for when he was living? That’s what we all play for now.”