June 17, 2020

Untimely Passing of Legendary Coach Higgins Leaves Huge Void in PDS, Lacrosse Communities

FOR PETE’S SAKE: Pete Higgins shows his game face as he posed for a picture. Longtime Princeton Day School coach and teacher Higgins passed away earlier this month, leaving a huge void in the PDS and lacrosse communities. (Photo by Andrew Lee, provided courtesy of PDS)

Pete Higgins cut an intimidating figure on the sidelines over the years for the Princeton Day School boys’ lacrosse program, typically wielding a stick as he barked out colorful commentary to players and officials alike.

But underneath the burly Higgins’ gruff exterior beat a heart of gold as he was legendary for his catalog of humorous stories, his connections through the lacrosse world starting with his native Long Island, and most of all, his zeal in developing his players.

So when Higgins suddenly passed away after a brief illness (unrelated to COVID-19) earlier this month at age 57, the PDS and lacrosse communities were left heartbroken.

“It is clear that he had a infectious personality, everybody loved being around Higgs, everybody loved a good Higgs story,” said PDS boys’ lax head coach Joe Moore.

“It is hard to understand how much he impacted the PDS community. I think I have fully understood that in the last couple of weeks here since he passed. It seems like everybody in the PDS community really had some sort of special connection with Higgs and you see how he touched everybody in the PDS community in some way. That is so unique.”

Working at PDS for 23 years, taking on a variety of roles from teaching health and PE, coaching varsity and middle school lacrosse, coaching middle school basketball, working in the school weight room and being involved in its peer leadership program, Higgins crossed paths with thousands of students and families over the years. Things were also busy at home for Higgins with his wife, Rebecca, and their four children, Catie, Jane, Mickey, and Quinn.

Beyond the stories, Higgins may have been best known around PDS for his three rules: Show up; have your stuff; and bring your best effort.

In the view of former PDS boys’ lax coach Rob Tuckman, who worked with Higgins for years, those words spoke volumes about his friend’s influence.

“To have something that you said or say over your period of time become ingrained in the legacy of your life really speaks to the fact that Pete loved everybody,” said Tuckman, who succeeded Higgins as the varsity head coach in 2007.

“His love was a firm love and respectful. He wasn’t going to be Mr. Rogers, he made sure that you earned things and recognized how special you are. I think his legacy is one of recognizing passion whatever it might be.”

That passion for the game resulted in Higgins shifting over to lead the school’s middle school lax program after Tuckman took the helm of the varsity. 

“Pete just knew the game inside and out and not only did he know the game inside and out, he wanted everybody else to know the game inside and out,” said Tuckman of Higgins, who played high school lacrosse for Ward Melville and then competed for Suffolk Community College and Guilford College.

“That is why the two of us made that decision for him to go to coach the middle school. Pete loved teaching the game at its core.”

PDS boys’ hockey coach and Middle School Director of Athletics Scott Bertoli seized the opportunity to help Higgins with his middle school program and was impressed with how he taught his athletes.

“He was very, very intense, he was very protective of his players,” said Bertoli.

“Even for kids at the middle school level he demanded a lot. It all centered around this respect for the game, playing the game the right way and competing hard. If someone tried to show up an official or an opposing player that is when Pete would get heated. He would pull kids out of the game, talk to them, and make it a point that it is completely unacceptable.”

Talking to Higgins just about every morning over the years became a highlight of Bertoli’s day.

“For me the magnitude of his loss really won’t fully resonate until we are back at school,” said Bertoli.

“He would usually teach his first period class and come in and sit across from me in my office and talk about whatever happened the night before. I have got three kids, he has got four kids. More often than not there is some mayhem at home the night before or that morning so we would share war stories. Inevitably someone else would pop in and he was throwing jabs. He was just a really fun-loving guy. He was so endearing to everyone that he came across. He had a way to make people laugh and smile.”

Rich D’Andrea, who succeeded Tuckman as the head coach of the PDS boys’ varsity squad, saw that Higgins had a special way with his charges.

“He was a kid-first guy; that was something that made him special,” said D’Andrea, whose first contact with Higgins came in high school when he was playing goalie for the Peddie School and faced PDS.

“The kids knew that it was his unconditional support for them that make them care.”

In his development as a coach, D’Andrea took a page out of Higgins’ book, learning that flexibility was a key to getting the most out of players.

“He was always great at finding that balance; some practices were fun and guys would be laughing but they always knew when they had to work,” said D’Andrea, recalling with a laugh that Higgins once broke the tension of a stormy halftime talk by chucking his cell phone 30 yards in anger and seeing it explode upon landing.

“He always had a really good pulse and understanding of what the needs of the team were. That is something that helps a coach build trust with the players and makes them want to be there. He was adaptable in that sense.”

One of those guys, Connor Fletcher, who started playing for Higgins in seventh grade and then went on to star for the PDS varsity and enjoy a superb career for the Cornell men’s lax program, credited Higgins with helping him master the basics of the game.

“For me, because he started coaching me at such a young age, his ability to make you understand the reasons that you do things, all the fundamentals and things like that was great,” said Fletcher, a star midfielder who served as a captain of Cornell this spring in his senior season and earned Inside Lacrosse/Maverik Media Honorable Mention All-American honors.

“He had such a great understanding of the game and was really able to start kids out with a foundation that let then grow into
better players. For me, it was simple things, like the way you hold your stick and stuff like that. The things that he taught me I feel really helped me grow as a player from middle school on.”

Citing the three rules of Higgs, Fletcher noted the lessons he learned went well beyond the fundamentals.

“What it meant to be a good teammate and a competitor is what I brought away most from playing for him,” added Fletcher.

“He instilled that in myself and all of the rest of the players he coached.”

Bertoli noted that Higgins utilized his storytelling as a vehicle to instill those character traits.

“I heard some of these stories many times and they were relevant with respect to teaching life lessons to these kids,” said Bertoli.

“He would start every practice with a story, there was always a point. It was always to put things into perspective and it resonated really well with these kids.”

The knowledge Higgins possessed, though, extended well beyond sports.

“What people don’t realize is that Pete was a son of an English professor at Columbia,” said Tuckman.

“Pete was incredibly learned; he knew a tremendous amount about everything and anything. He could really hold some high level conversations that you wouldn’t expect having just kind of walked up upon him in sweats and five layers of clothing. The truth is he was one of the most impressive people I have come across in my time. The outpouring of love for him is really a statement of the type of person that he was.”

In Moore’s view, that outpouring reflects the wide-ranging influence of Higgins.

“I think his name will be around forever in the Princeton area and in the lacrosse community in the entire country,” said Moore, noting that Higgins coached youth players for Team Turnpike and Centercourt Sports in Lawrence.

“He is one of those big names that just touched the lacrosse community and definitely contributed to moving the game in the right direction, especially at the youth level.”

As Moore adjusted to taking the head coaching role last year, Higgins helped keep him going in the right direction.

“I leaned a lot on Higgs; I would drop into his office and what he did best for me was reassuring me that everything was going to be OK,” said Moore, who ended up guiding the Panthers to the 2019 Mercer County Tournament title in his debut campaign.

“When you step into a private school coaching role, you are there to win games ultimately. There is a decent amount of pressure that comes with that role. Higgs always reassured me that whatever happens, happens and just know that I have your back and you are going to be fine. That was huge from a stress relief standpoint.”

Having Higgins serve as a jack-of-all trades was reassuring for PDS lax as a whole.

“He was a guy who we had float around our program, from the middle school through the varsity level; he was the Godfather of PDS lacrosse,” said Moore.

“He was working with our middle school and just laying the foundation. It wasn’t like he was an offensive coach or a defensive coach. He was just a lacrosse coach because his knowledge stretched so wide across the entire game. That was huge for everybody but especially for our younger guys coming up.”

For D’Andrea, Higgins laid the foundation that resulted in the Panthers winning four straight MCT crowns and three state Prep B titles in recent years.

“Pete was one of the first ones to hand it off but he still stayed in the program and his fingerprints were all over it,” said D’Andrea, referring to the succession of PDS head coaches starting with Higgins and then going from Tuckman to D’Andrea to Moore.

“It is one of the reasons the program has been so strong. Those transitions have been relatively seamless. It is a really sturdy foundation. That is Pete’s architecture there so it has been pretty neat.”

Fletcher, for his part, will always remember how Higgins touched his life along with so many others in the PDS community.

“He wanted to make sure that he was there for us and people were there for each other and just having fun with whatever you were doing and making the best out of every single moment,” said Fletcher, noting that people are coming together for the Higgins family as friends started a GoFundMe page, www.gofundme.com/f/support-for-the-higgins-family, to help pay for medical bills, funeral costs, and establish an education fund for his children.

“That is what he was all about. When everybody heard about his passing with texts being sent out, the first response was we wanted to anything to help out his family because he did so much for everybody. The least we can do is to do everything we can to help his family out and try to remember him in the best way. I don’t think anybody is ever going to forget Pete Higgins for sure.”