AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — For the last 30 years or so, much of Ken McNeely’s life has revolved around X’s and Y’s or X’s and O’s.

The longtime mathematics teacher and coach at Aviano High School decided to add another “ex” to his life recently — as in ex-football coach. The 68-year-old has decided he won’t be roaming the sidelines with the Saints this fall.

“I’ve been going to football practice for over 50 years of my life,” he said during a recent interview in his office. “And I think it’s not going to be simple to give it up.”

But that’s what he plans to do, partly at the urging of his wife, Erica.

So Aviano will be losing the only head coach it’s had since the school opened in 1974. McNeely has missed only one season in that span. Longtime assistant Michael O’Donnell filled in when McNeely came down with viral encephalitis in 1995 and was in a coma for 17 days.

The wear and tear of coaching — he also coaches basketball at the school as well as a few Italian club teams — convinced him that something had to give.

“It hasn’t been an easy decision for me,” McNeely said. “I had a hard time telling the kids.”

By kids, he meant the students who plan to play this fall. But he might as well have been referring to hundreds of former players, many who now have kids of their own.

“I consider him a near and dear friend, probably just like anyone who has graduated from the school or been on one of his teams,” said Charles Chiarotti, a colonel in the Marine Corps in a telephone interview from the States. He’ll soon travel to Okinawa to become commander of Combat Logistics Regiment 3. “He taught us more about life in general than the game of football.

“One of the things he taught me was that the journey is worth a lot more than the actual game,” said Chiarotti, who played football at Aviano from 1979 to 1981. “It’s held up.”

Marcello Gabrielli, who graduated in 1993, said his team went unbeaten one year, but he remembered even more the next season when the Saints lost in the finals.

“Even though we lost, I sometimes feel it was our most successful season,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He never made us feel bad about it, and (told us) success is measured by effort and desire and growth.”

Vyron Harris said he didn’t play football initially, but McNeely persuaded him to play in 1978.

“Coach has taught me how to be patient and calm,” Harris wrote in an e-mail. He was one of several former players who contacted Stripes as word spread of McNeely’s decision.

McNeely started coaching in Michigan in 1961. He came to Aviano with the opening of the new school. Students had previously been bused to Vicenza.

“I’ve had some fantastic players in that time,” he said. Six or seven went on to play at Division I universities. A few made it on to NFL rosters or played professionally in Canada.

He still plans to teach and coach the boys’ basketball team in the gym that bears his name. He’ll also carry out his duties as athletic director — a job he’s held for “only” 25 years.

“I don’t want to give it all up,” he said. “I’m not looking to retire. I love teaching. I love coaching. I really get a kick out of it.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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