We never forget teachers or coaches who mattered, the people of our younger days who honed our skills and challenged us to be better than we ever could have imagined.
Agapito “Pitong” Custodio may not ring a bell in today’s sports pages. But to those in volleyball and soft tennis, he was a towering presence as coach and mentor. When he passed away this week after a battle with cancer, the players and student managers he had mentored lost their great teacher.
I first met him in 1973 as one of the student managers of the Ateneo junior volleyball team. He was our new coach since our captain Levi Encinas (who had taken over when we lost our coach in midseason) had moved on to college. Custodio arrived at practice one summer morning with that familiar military look and demeanor: crew cut, ramrod straight body and a confident walk.
I would soon learn of his impressive volleyball credentials: stints with FEU and NCBA and as captain of the Philippine team in the Asian Games from 1958 to 1966, a time when the country was still a power in the sport.
We welcomed him like any class would on the first day. But unlike a class where things take time to warm up, coach Pitong hit the ground barking. He ordered duck walks, diving drills and sprints. The squad had done drills before but never those that demanded flexing unused muscles.
To a bunch of high school boys, the exercises were at first intimidating. In time though, the players saw their skills improve. Custodio also worked on the thinking part of the game, emphasizing that the game was not just about brute strength or superior jumping ability. I even learned how to play the game because you needed 12 people for a scrimmage. On days when some players had injuries or academic commitments, I had to fill in for the second unit that prepped the starting six.
He trusted me and two other managers, Stuey Young and Jingle Severino, to take care of the needs of the team. Together with our moderator Fr. Joey Cruz and principal Fr. Raymond Miller, we worked on details like refreshments, the team bus and even quartering once we reached the semifinal round.
Custodio was training us for life by emphasizing responsibility, teamwork and commitment. This resulted in defending our volleyball title after ferocious battles with San Beda and La Salle. It was a team for the ages as we still recall today those difficult practices and games and more importantly, Custodio’s lessons. He went on to win more Ateneo volleyball championships, coaching the Seniors, Juniors and Women’s teams to titles.
This weekend, Custodio will be inducted into the Ateneo Sports Hall of Fame. He knew of the honor that awaited him but sensed he might not have enough time left to make it to the presentation. Our captain Boy Ramos said that the award would be presented as well during Custodio’s wake.
But at the Hall of Fame ceremony, coach Pitong will be there with his family and the players he mentored. A teacher is really known and remembered by the students he has taught.