Wall and the Crush are crushing it

Aug. 13—Life often hangs by serendipitous threads, sometimes even disguised as misfortune, only later to reveal the blessing. Like the time Mike Wall blew out his knee for the second time at age 20 playing college baseball, triggering the depressing thought of "well, looks like I gotta go home and go to work."

It hardly felt like the occasion that would ultimately begin this revolution, this baseball story that has become Wall's gift to give away more money than Publishers Clearing House.

And so there were Wall and his boys the other night at Langley's in front of 200 people, giving away $54,000 in college scholarship money and to charity, the best evidence yet that the Crush are crushing it.

Wall began the Connecticut Crush, a local travel/AAU baseball team, in 2005, with dreams bigger than his budget. Now there's the Crush with kids from all ages playing all over the place, while The Coach Vic Foundation, named after late assistant coach Vic Gaska, gives away goodies like Santa.

"I tore my knee up twice by 20 years old and was done with college baseball," said Wall, a 2003 East Lyme High grad who played at Manchester Community College. "I had never thought of coaching. One day, I coached Dylan's (his brother Dylan Delacruz) doubleheader (in 2005 for another AAU program) and I knew that's what I wanted to do. That was it. It took off."

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"It's not easy to build something like this, especially in this area. I don't want to step on anybody's toes," Wall said. "But we kept building. Putting the kids in college is the biggest thing we did."

More than 30 players in the program got $1,000 apiece to help with college tuition the other night. That is called an attention-getter, borne of almost two decades' work.

"One of the first long trips we took was in 2011 going to Allentown, Pennsylvania," Wall said. ""We rented a car for $30 a day. We could barely fit anything in there. The ball bucket was in the middle of the backseat. We should have got pulled over. We put four coaches in one room. People slept on the floor."

They took two teams. Now there are teams with kids ages 10-19 and more than 30 coaches in the program. The Allentown trip is of particular significance, though, given the special guest that accompanied them that weekend.

Wall tells the story best.

"Vic Gaska," Wall says, his voice awash in appreciation and sentiment. "I met Vic playing slow pitch softball. I had no idea who he was. He had the hair down to his butt. A mustache like (former adult film star) Ron Jeremy. I remember telling Beth (Wall's wife), 'I don't know who this guy is, but I love the energy.'

"When we were going to Allentown, he goes, 'Hey, do you mind if I come this weekend?' He has no kids in a program. And after that weekend in Allentown, with two teams, you would have thought he knew those kids his entire life. After that, he said, 'I'm not missing anything anymore.'"

Gaska, Waterford High class of 1983, served on the USS Dace (SSN-607) in the Navy. He later worked as an armed security officer and union steward at Millstone. He died of a heart attack in January, 2019, at the age of 53. Wall's eyes still well at his friend's memory. But then there's this: His memory lives on through The Coach Vic Foundation, which has become the Crush's philanthropic wing.

"We're 100% nonprofit," Wall said. "It's a foundation now. The Coach Vic Foundation. Which was not easy to be a nonprofit during COVID. You didn't talk to anybody. But we raise money through two golf tournaments (on the same day at Norwich GC) with 36 foursomes off at eight in the morning and 36 foursomes off at 1:30 in the afternoon."

Perhaps you wonder: How does a golf tournament — even of this undertaking — raise $54,000? Enter another star of the show, Shawn Meaike, who grew up locally and founded Family First Life, a company that markets mortgage protection, final expense, life insurance and annuities.

"We raised $25,000 one year and Shawn said he would match it," Wall said. "Like no joke. I got teary-eyed. This year, we raised $27,000. He matched it again. And it was the easiest check that he ever wrote. I've never asked Shawn for one thing. He just did it. It's unbelievable."

The Coach Vic Foundation wrote checks to players in the program as well as to Lakes Bond Baptist Church (which Gaska's family attends), Community Speaks Out, The Ryan Marshall Foundation and to Section 8 Housing.

"We all just love doing this," Wall said. "Guys like Mitch (Furber) and Chip (Terni) have been phenomenal. And without Beth (wife Beth Smith Wall, a former assistant girls' basketball coach at St. Bernard) none of this happens.

"The biggest thing I pride myself on is that we're doing it in Vic's name. I hope he's smiling somewhere. We had close to 200 people at Langley's. Hopefully, God willing, we continue to give more away."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.