Photo Courtesy of USF Athletic Department
Sweat dripped from the brow of St. Francis legend Tony Delgado as he got ready for the next rally of his vicious racquetball game with his son Jerred Delgado and two others. It was the best the 80-year-old had played in years. Tony was making shots that he hadn’t made in ages, making Jerred turn around on multiple occasions to make sure it really was his dad (who he was paired against) making these plays.
Days later, on June 14, 2023, Tony passed away unexpectedly, having competed to the very end.
“Usually we would be going around my dad, the three of us, and that day my dad was where he needed to be on every shot,” Jerred said with a laugh. “It must’ve been God saying, ‘Hey ‘Del’ this is your last game, so live it up.’”
There was no competitor more fierce than Tony Delgado. He was recruited by another all-time University of St. Francis (USF) legend Gordie Gillespie to play baseball and basketball at Lewis University from 1961 to 1965. The relationship Tony formed with Gillespie was a special one.
“The talks they used to have,” Jerred remembered about the pairing. “[And] they weren’t about sports, but about life and how to conduct yourself, and [that] things are going to get hard but you push through.”
Those conversations between Gillespie and Tony during Tony’s playing days convinced him to eventually coach alongside the college baseball legend. The pair spent 20 years at the ballpark together split between USF and Lewis, resulting in three NAIA World Series championships, including the sole baseball national championship ever won by the Fighting Saints in 1993.
Three years after winning the national title as an assistant under Gillispie, Tony took over the program and led the Fighting Saints to eight winning seasons in ten years, but Tony’s legacy goes well beyond just the wins and losses.
“It was about competing,” Jerred said about his dad’s mindset. “Whatever the result was, when he came home, we didn’t know it. If you competed and you lost it wasn’t [the end of the world].”
But that didn’t mean Tony didn’t care about the wins and losses.
“We couldn’t tell if he won or lost the game until the playoffs,” Jerred recalled. “If he lost in the playoffs, he felt it.”
One playoff game stuck out in particular to Tony. He thought about the would-have could-have of a decision he made that ultimately cost him the game, and the season.
“To his dying day he would always talk about one particular playoff game,” Jerred said. “They needed a strikeout, and he should have brought in the strikeout guy, but instead he brought in the guy who got outs with fly balls. He always remembered that.”
Tony kept that same passion for everyone that wore the USF brown and gold.
“The important aspect is not only how much St. Francis meant to him,” Jerred said, “but also the athletes. The athletes meant a lot to him.”
There has quite possibly never been a better Saint than Tony Delgado. One of just five individuals to have their number retired and lifted into the rafters of the Pat Sullivan Center, Tony joined the ranks of USF athletic greats in 2009 when he was elected to the athletic department’s hall of fame.
You would find Tony at every event possible. Women’s basketball at 5 PM on a Thursday night? He’s the first in the door. Baseball has a February home game in the brutal cold? You could find him behind the plate wearing layers upon layers of brown and gold.
“He loved the athletes and he loved the NAIA,” Jerred said. “He was all about the NAIA.”
The love Tony had for this school and its students was unmatched, or so many thought. At his celebration of life this past June, the reception line weaved throughout the chapel, into the lobby of the Tezak Funeral Home, and out into the parking lot. It was full of players Tony coached, their parents, their kids (some of whom Tony gave lessons to) and tons and tons from the USF and Lewis communities.
“If he could go [to USF] today,” Jerred said, “he’d be there doing something.”
The guest book from the celebration of life eclipsed 550 names. The love Tony had for this community was reciprocated fully (and then some) at his celebration of life.
The sound of Tony’s racquetball games or his hitting lessons have since left the basement of the Pat Sullivan Center. It’s quieter…much quieter. The only evidence of his presence now is the banner that bears his name, and all the players competing to the best of their ability, carrying on the legacy Tony left behind.
Disclaimer: Alex Mielcarz is an employee of the USF Athletic Department