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Abessinio Stadium opens to great fanfare, with a nod to Salesianum School history

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WILMINGTON — Three hundred and eighty-eight days after the building permit was secured, Abessinio Stadium opened for a Salesianum School football game. Despite the result on the field, a 42-30 loss for the Sals at the hands of the Smyrna Eagles, it was a night members of the Sallies community will not soon forget.

Many of the approximately 1,200 people in attendance — a number that included players, coaches, officials, media, employees and volunteers in addition to fans — were seeing the facility for the first time. There was a lot to take in long before the two teams stepped on to the artificial surface.

Rocco Abessinio conducts the coin toss prior to the game on Nov. 13 between Salesianum and Smyrna. The Sals are represented by Jack Healy (left), while Aidan Sanchez was there for the Eagles. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

One of the first things to greet visitors as they approach the entrance is a statue of former Salesianum football coach Dominic “Dim” Montero. The 1938 graduate of the school was its coach from 1956-65, compiling a record of 70-10-3 and many accolades, including National Catholic Coach of the Year in 1964. One of his players his first season was Rocco Abessinio, who provided the bulk of the funding for the stadium that bears his name.

During remarks before the game, Abessinio talked about the influence Montero had on him during a difficult period in his life and why he wanted to honor his former coach in a tangible way. Abessinio lost his eligibility after one season because of academics, and his father was considering not sending him back to Salesianum.

“I was very fortunate that he kind of took me under his wing,” Abessinio said. “When I became ineligible, Dim came to my home to talk to my parents and convinced them to keep me in Salesianum.

“I happened to stay at Salesianum, and Dim asked me to assist him, as he did a number of other individuals. I ran drills for him and drove him around and picked up his son and things of that nature, and we became very close.”

Montero told Abessinio to never be satisfied, advice he also heard from his grandfather.

“As a word to the players, don’t be satisfied with that last play. Make sure the next one is better,” Abessinio said.

Outgoing Salesianum president Brendan Kennealey helped steer the project along over the past four years. Initially proposed in the fall of 2016, progress was halted for about 20 months, but the school and the city, which owns the parkland on which the stadium sits, eventually reached an agreement that allowed Salesianum to move forward.

“This stadium is a shining example of what can happen when we look to potential where there seemingly is none, when we bring people together for the common good, when institutions invest in their communities,” Kennealey said.

The entrance plaza includes 650 commemorative bricks bearing the names of members of the school community. The grandstand on the east side of the stadium seats 3,000 and includes office space for the Delaware State Parks officials, a modern press box, a suite that overlooks the field, and two terraces. There is a building at the south end of the property housing a concession stand and team store, a physical therapy business, and visiting team locker rooms. The bleachers on the visitor’s sideline hold another 1,000 people and a small auxiliary press box, and there is ample room for fans to stand around the fence.

Rocco Abessinio speaks with Oblate Father Chris Beretta in the background. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

“We are grateful to everyone who made this dream possible,” Kennealey said.

Gov. John Carney said he was excited to stand on the field where he played for Saint Mark’s nearly 50 years ago as the Spartans’ quarterback. He also remembered attending his first game at Baynard Stadium a few years before that and seeing Kevin Reilly play for the Sals. Reilly would go on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots in the National Football League, and he was in attendance at the dedication.

“There are tremendous memories for literally thousands of Salesianum athletes, Saint Mark’s athletes, Howard athletes, St. Elizabeth athletes, CYO athletes, city of Wilmington children who play in the Naylor Football League,” the governor said. “The ultimate was to play on Friday nights under the lights here at Baynard Stadium, now Rocco Abessinio Stadium.”

The final speaker at the dedication was Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Chris Beretta, Salesianum’s principal. He said he was at the stadium earlier in the week as a group of students shot an introductory video, and he was overwhelmed looking at the names on the bricks at the entrance and how many people are part of the Salesianum tradition, both at the current location and at the original site at Eighth and West streets in downtown Wilmington. Salesianum, he said, is more than a building.

“Salesianum is the teachers and staff, the families and Oblates, and more than anything, the alumni and current students, the brotherhood,” Father Beretta said. “You are the living stone. You are Salesianum.”