TAMPA — They talked of grueling football practices, big meals and a wall Vincent Sussman destroyed with a nail gun. They described a voice so loud, everyone was in earshot.
They called him Coach Suss, Big Suss, a gentle giant. "A child in a man's body," said friend Joe Kolinsky. "A big man's body."
And they said it all with love.
For 90 minutes Thursday night in the Plant High School gymnasium that bears his name, Sussman, who died early Monday at 63, was remembered as a hard-driving coach and administrator who earned respect and admiration among those in his charge.
Colleague Ken Otero, recently retired as Hillsborough County's deputy superintendent, described their misadventures as he and Sussman ran a side business installing sprinklers and carports. That's where the nail gun mishap occurred.
Kolinsky, who coached with him, said of Sussman's constant tinkering: "Every time you were with him was a new adventure."
Sussman's two daughters, now also educators, said there was no arguing with him. But he would start his day at 4:30 a.m. to be home in time for family dinner.
Friends and family talked of Sussman's fall from a ladder at his home in 1997, which left him a quadriplegic and likely shortened his life.
"I thought, 'Vince will probably never be able to work again,' " said fellow coach Vernon Korhn.
"And boy, was I wrong."
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who knew Sussman as her daughter's principal and later as a co-worker in the district's facilities division, said that whatever his title, he was always a coach.
"Coaches are great teachers," she told the crowd. "He taught and coached and helped kids become better people, certainly you who are here."
Speaking on behalf of Sussman's former players at Plant, Tim Murray said, "He was a very tough coach. But he loved us. He cared for us, and he brought out the best in us."
In the Plant equipment room, "he knew where every mouthpiece was and where every helmet was," Otero said. "And if anything was missing, you could hear him from the field."
Somewhere in Tampa, Otero said, coaches who played for him are no doubt bellowing as he would: "Nobody walks but the mailman, and I don't see a bag on your shoulder."
There also was a collective realization that, with Sussman's accident, a man known as large and colorful became the embodiment of grace in adversity.
Friends and family spoke of the hours it took to get Sussman ready for each work day. They described his attitude, always positive.
"Suss, how you doing?" Kolinsky asked one day after Sussman retired, his health deteriorating.
"Life is good," his friend replied.
Daughter Angela Sussman Kral, an assistant principal, recalled the career advice her father gave her — and the time he grounded her for getting B's on her report card because he knew she could do better.
She lost not just a father but a mentor, she said.
Her sister, Sarah Sussman, said her father would not allow televisions in their rooms, but had them sit with him to watch Beverly Hills 90210.
She described family vacations in a motor home. Even the cats would come along, she said.
"The older I get, the more I realize how precious our childhood really was," she said.
"He didn't set out to be a role model or an icon. He was just really nice and loved everybody and wanted to help whenever he could."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected]