The Dash for Dad

Vin Gallo
@VinGallo731

Jake Simons was in eighth grade the first time he saw him run. It was at a middle school cross country invitational. The kid was just a sixth grader. Simons remembers the gun sounding, the golf cart taking off to lead the runners through the course, and the athletes pursuing.

He remembers racing his way through the event amongst the mass of middle schoolers and eying the path ahead. What he saw in front of him was a display of awe-striking dominance. The sixth grader was cutting through the sea of humanity. Quickly and efficiently, he passed by the leader, all the while with a face plastered with a look of determination – his gaze glued downward to the point just beyond his feet, and his mouth slightly ajar.

Then he just kept going.

And going.

And going.

And going.

“He was directly behind the golf cart,” recalled Simons. “He could have put his hand out and touched it when it was supposed to be well ahead of everyone. Then behind him, there was about a minute gap. They needed a faster golf cart. This was sixth grade and the kid was already a star.”

***

Jack Pinho has come a long way from chasing golf carts he had no business catching. Currently a senior member of both the Springfield College men’s cross country team and track and field team, he is set to finish a decorated collegiate running career, with several top 10 finishes on his resume. But Pinho’s story goes beyond skill. It is about an unteachable drive and will that has both heartwarming and tragic in origin.

 

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Pinho  (right) with his brother Jake (left) | Photo courtesy of the Pinho family

 

Sophomore cross country and track and field athlete Rich Linley is amazed by Pinho’s dedication to the two sports. “If you don’t know him, some may think of him as a hot shot,” he said. “But once you do know him, you realize he’s the quintessential competitor. Whatever we’re doing, he takes everything seriously. He has the mindset of ‘if you’re messing around, why are you here?’ It’s good to have someone there to bring everything to focus and remind everyone what the end goal is.”

Coming in as a freshman last season, Linley knew that Pinho would be the perfect member of the team to learn from. Though he quickly discovered that Pinho in fact had less experience with the two sports than he did. Pinho didn’t run cross country in high school and had only ran track in the spring.

“When you find that out, the first thing that comes to mind – ‘you gotta be freaking kidding me,’” Linley said. “But the guy’s been like a big brother to me. I just try to emulate him the best I can. His work ethic is second to none. He’s so determined to give his best.”

Linley remembers the meet that he calls, ‘the best race of Jack’s life.’ It was this past October at the Connecticut College Invitational. It was pouring in New London. The course was 8 kilometers of muddy trails through a wooded area. While runners took falls down slippery slopes, Pinho cut through the wall of rain in 25:41 minutes. When the finish came into sight, Pinho’s look of determination, the look he’s had since 12 years old, went from a focused gaze to eyes filled with competitive rage. He advanced full speed towards the line. If he couldn’t get 12th he needed 13th. A 4:56 final mile helped him do just that.

“I can always go back to visualizing Jack crossing the [finish] line, seeing him stumbling, the arms swinging back and forth ready to collapse,” Linley said. “Why go out there if you’re not going to give everything you’ve got? It’s almost like when things get tough, he feeds off of it. He gets better from it.”

***

Learning to move has a natural step-by-step process. You crawl, you walk, then you run. Jack Pinho is an exception. He completely skipped over the walking part. Pinho’s mother, Jane, saw a tireless speed in her youngest son from the start.

“I tell people, when Jack was born, he was moving,” she said. “His birth was so fast it was as if he came into the world running. When he was two years old I’d have people come up to me and say ‘God bless you,’ because I constantly needed to have my hand on the kid. He never walked. He always ran.”

Being raised in a football family within the borough of Naugatuck, Conn. and later the suburbs of Prospect, Conn., a young Pinho was never discouraged to slow down. Sure, control was needed. There was the time as a toddler where he needed to be restrained from running across the lanes at his brother Jake’s bowling party, and the collision with a coffee table when he was three that required stitches.

But full throttle was not taboo. For Pinho, there was winning to be done, particularly against Jake who is three years his senior. Jack’s backyard was his childhood arena where he’d test his might against his elder brother.

The challenges varied from who could beat out who in a footrace to who could throw the ball farther. Occasionally, it would end in a wrestling match with Jack venting any frustration. “It always ended in some kind of fiasco,” said Jack. “It never ended in shaking hands.”

Jack had his struggles when facing off against Jake in their competition driven brotherhood. Though he would have his moments against him as a freshman on Woodland Regional High School’s football team. They would last only for one season, as Jake was a senior in Jack’s first year with the Hawks. Nevertheless, it was Jack Pinho’s chance to show off to the older players against his brother. He would cause their teammates to razz on Jake, a senior captain whenever he stole the show after practice when the entire team conditioned together.

“I was the smaller guy on the field, so I didn’t shine that much,” Jack said. “But when it came to the running aspect, I would gun it. They’d bag on him: ‘Ah, Pinho’s little brother’s beating him in sprints! Freshman vs senior!’ That would always raise some fire in the household.”

 

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Jack Pinho (left) with his brother Jake (right) and their father George (center) | Photo courtesy of the Pinho family

 

Finally, one day while participating in sprints, the two Portuguese brothers, known to the Woodland Hawks as ‘Tugal (short for Portugal) One [Jake] and ‘Tugal Two [Jack] broke away from the group and bearing down on the finish.

“Jack was neck and neck with his brother, and Jake ended up beating him, but only by a hair,” Jane recalled. “Jake said afterwards, ‘I would have killed myself if I had to, because there’s no way I was going to let [Jack] beat me.’”

Though even in defeat, Jack knew how to silence any gloating made by his brother.

“Yeah?” he’d say with a grin. “Try beating me in a longer race now.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Jake would respond.

The elder Pinho admitted that in a test of distance, he could never catch his younger sibling.

“In a sprint, he might be able to beat me now, back in my hey day, he couldn’t beat me,” Jake said. “But 200 meters? He had me there. He’s always been fast, but he’s got this motor where he can keep running.”

There was no way around it. In Prospect, football ruled. With it always a part of the Pinho’s fall, Jack never considered cross country as anything he’d take up. Though Jane remembers the years he did so, the lost cross country seasons between sixth and eighth grade, where commitment to two sports was allowed. Jack would create gaps between himself and his opponents the other sixth graders could only dream of creating.

Watching her son run was something that inspired Jane to take running up herself. She found great pride in watching her son set records at Long River Middle School and assert an athletic ability that would sometimes be hidden on the football field.

“I would always just scream at him to push, and push, and push,” she said. “And he always would. He’d always give [cross country] his best.”

When Jack’s middle school tenure ended, it was back to the gridiron. For some time, the door on distance running would close for him. Though it would prove to be a key remedy during a time of tragedy.

***

Jack’s father, George Pinho, was also a man who much like his sons enjoyed competitiveness. Like his wife, he was invested in helping his two boys succeed. He would have the job of keeping yard games between Jack and Jake as civil as possible. But according to Jack, George wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Whether it was throwing the football or playing hoops, he was there for them. He was also their football coach, the assistant for Woodland High’s head coach Tim Shea. If Jack or his brother were to ever do anything wrong on the field, George would let them know about it, especially if there was a win on the line. Though Jack says that it was never to harm them. He was quick to move on from any mistakes once any error was understood.

“[My dad] was genuinely one of my best friends. We could talk about anything,” Jack said. “He would always tell me to focus. If I was to ever get hot headed or get out of control, he would always give me this look and mouth ‘focus.’ He was always trying to keep me cool, calm, and collected.”

It was a Saturday in January when it happened. January 19, 2013. At the crack of dawn, George had dropped off Jack, now a junior, at Woodland Regional for football lift. Basketball practice would follow right after at 8. Halfway through basketball drills, Jack was pulled aside.

“They said, ‘your dad’s in the hospital, we need to bring you there right now,’” Jack said. “I had no idea what was going on. When I get to the hospital my brother was there.”

Jake had found his father back at the house suffering from serious chest pain. George had been waking up to get ready to bring his youngest son home from basketball practice.

“The doctors said that my dad had a heart attack,” said Jack. “And that he hadn’t made it out of it.”

George Pinho was 48 years old, having just celebrated his birthday in December. The upcoming football season would have been his final year coaching his two sons, as Jack was a rising senior.

“It was probably the hardest day of my life,” Jack said. “The worst part was the coming home [from school] part [afterwards]. Nobody would be there when I got back. That was tough. It still is.”

Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, Jake believes the death of his father helped him and his brother bond closer together. The two had come a long way under the guidance of their dad. There was still much to be done in his name.

“After our dad died [Jack] always came to me with anything on his mind,” Jake said. “He would always tell me how proud he was of me and how he wanted to be like me. I would reciprocate that back, I told him how proud I was of him. It brought us even closer together.”

Jane Pinho wouldn’t allow her husband’s passing bring her down either. In George’s honor, she set out to achieve something she’d consider attempting since she first saw Jack take off in his first cross country meet back in middle school – she wanted to run a half marathon.

“Running was a coping thing for her, [as] it was for me,” Jack said. “I started using running and outdoor track more to distract myself from always thinking about it.”

After training vigorously, Jane signed up for a half marathon in April of 2013, three months after George’s death. She had signed someone else up for it too.

“It was a Sunday morning,” Jack recalled. “She woke me up, told me she was going to the race, and that I was going too.”

It caught Pinho off guard, who was going into the race cold.

“I had had no interest in running in it, and I didn’t know she had registered me,” he explained. “I hadn’t done cross country [in years]. I ran the thing with no training. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – I had never run anything over three miles before.”

Once again, at the time, Pinho could have sworn to himself that was the last time he’d ever participate in distance running.

“I told myself I’d never do that kind of mileage ever again,” he said. “Cross Country? No way.”

Although he hadn’t ran distance since his Long River days and was nowhere near comfortable running a half of a marathon, Jane still saw an athlete in her son with the potential to dominate.

“I had been training for five months for that marathon. He ran that race in an hour and 15 minutes,” she said. With a laugh, she added. “I did it in two hours and 29 minutes.”

Though the times weren’t the most important part to Jane. She was glad to run with her son, just as she had with him all those years ago.

Jane said, “I was ready to crash and he still ran with me at the end to finish.”

 

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Jack Pinho (right) with his mother Jane (left) | Photo courtesy of the Pinho family

 

If he wanted it to, the athletic career of Jack Pinho could have ended after his senior year in high school. He helped spin the perfect senior year memory, for both himself and his four year teammates. Pinho’s greatest moment with the Woodland Regional Hawks came on Oct. 4 of 2013. It was during the team’s first regular season without George Pinho on the sidelines.

Woodland Regional’s archrival was in town that Friday. George’s hometown Naugatuck Greyhounds. It was a game of raw emotion generated by a crowd of 2,000, and would be the start of the annual George Pinho game played each season against the two towns. It was George’s Naugy roots against his Woodland family. For Jack there was nothing sweeter than beating out the ‘Hounds 25-22. He remembers racing towards the sidelines toward Jake as the goosebump inducing mixture of the final buzzer and the Woodland crowd’s delirious screams of triumph blared across the autumn air. The two brothers shared a long and emotional embrace amongst the pandemonium. “He takes pride in the last name,” said Jake. “When our dad died I think it put a lot of pressure on him. A lot of people were looking at him. That’s part of what drives him, and still drives him.”

Jack broke away from his brother and dashed to where the game’s prize sat. The prize the Hawks knew was rightfully theirs. The George Pinho memorial game trophy. Without thinking, Pinho grabbed it and raised the hardware overhead in front of his hometown. The crowd roared to a decibel that future student sections in Prospect will be unable to reach. Jack lowered the trophy and pointed his finger skyward.

For George.

 

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Pinho raises George Pinho Memorial Trophy in front of Woodland Regional crowd | Photo courtesy of Jack Pinho

 

The book could have closed there. But Jack’s competitive nature didn’t allow him to step away from sports. Within the first few months of his freshman year, Pinho contacted then track and field coach Ken Klatka about trying out as a walk-on. In his sophomore year, he hopped on with the cross country team in attempt to improve his times.

“I️ felt like walking on was a win win, like I️ didn’t have anything to lose. I️ wasn’t recruited so no one really knew who I️ was. It was kind of a surreal moment, having ‘Springfield’ across my chest. I️ didn’t think much of being a collegiate athlete out of high school. It’s not that I️ didn’t want to, I️ just didn’t have it in my plans. But everything happens for a reason. My dad probably laughs, probably didn’t expect me to be running in college. But I know he supports it.”

Pinho made it. Both track and later cross country. Amongst those recruited into the program, it took some a while to find out who the new mystery man at practice was. Pinho however, was no stranger to Jake Simons, who had seen a peek of what was to come back when he raced Pinho in middle school.

“Everyone was like, ‘who is this kid?’” said Simons, who was a seasoned senior at the time. “It was great I was able to take him under my wing, and I was able to teach him what I knew he was able to teach me what he knew.”

 

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Photo courtesy of Daniela Detore / The Student

 

Simons saw a drastic change from the middle schooler he witnessed dominate back in Prospect. Pinho had grown from a sixth grade kid who would chase down golf carts to a composed collegiate athlete.

“Playing football and basketball was only to his benefit,” he said. “Jack brought a football mentality to a sport dominated by skinnier athletes and he proved to everyone that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of fight in the dog. He is the smallest bulldozer you’ve ever seen. And that’s the advantage he has in the sport of running. He has an aggressive mentality and he doesn’t give up.”

Jane Pinho still makes the hour trip from Prospect to see her youngest do what he was born to do. At one point, back in 2014, she’d make the trek up to Springfield to see Jack as a freshman run as a walk-on for the track team. She would follow this up by taking the drive back down into Connecticut to catch Jake’s football game, who walked on with Central Connecticut State University. It was a rough route, taken almost every week by a woman who works six days a week in efforts to help with her sons’ school funds. They had both ended up successful collegiate athletes without any form of recruitment. The family mantra of being competitive and driven at all times had paid off.

“I️ have a deeper motivation in what I️ do, with honoring [my dad] and the sacrifices him and my mom have made, and are still making,” said Jack. “It rechecks me, it keeps me motivated.”

“Jack would always say to me after a race, ‘I did that for you, mom’ or ‘I did that for dad,’” Jane said. “And at one point I said, ‘you know Jack, I’m glad, but do it for you too. I want you to know that when you’re running, just think of your father because he’s right there with you. When you think you can’t go any further, just think in your head what your father would say to you.’”

Those words will always stay with Jack Pinho every time he laces up his running shoes.

“Focus,” George tells his youngest son. “Keep going.”

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