LINDEN, NJ — After 19 years of putting out fires as the Athletic Director for Linden Public Schools, and 37 straight years of service in the district, longtime Linden coach, teacher and administrator Stephen Yesinko can count the number of days until retirement on both hands.
“I won’t miss the aggravation,” joked Yesinko, who began teaching at Linden High School in 1978. “But I will miss the people. A lot of good people around here. Everybody says you know when it’s time — it was time.”
Hundreds of former Linden students will remember Yesinko as their drivers’ ed instructor, gym teacher or — if they competed in basketball, track or cross country — coach. Yesinko had always aspired to become an educator, he says, eventually getting a degree from Kean University, and gravitated towards physical education because he loved sports.
“I played sports all my life, so I decided I wanted to go into physical education after my first semester at college,” said Yesinko. That was about the same time he got his first taste of an Athletic Director’s job, too, although he didn’t realize it at the time. “I participated in fraternity athletics, and the fraternity I was in needed someone to do all of the scheduling for them. I was that guy. So that was my first taste of doing schedules. It was a lot easier, back then. There were only five fraternities on-campus.”
There are more than 30 districts represented in some of the conferences Yesinko worked with in 2015, his 19th and final year as Linden’s Athletic Director. It’s a role he characterizes as “putting small fires out on a daily basis,” with the help of Assistant Athletic Directors Kelly Kozial and Diana Dertinger.
The job is oftentimes about little, checklist-like obstacles, he said, such as making sure security knows where to be stationed, hiring an honest ticket seller who won’t skim off the top, or ensuring that the lights are on for game time.
In other words, said Yesinko, you wear a lot of hats.
“You expect the unexpected. During the season you have your transportation, you have to make sure is all taken care of, you have your schedules, you have your officials,” said Yesinko. “You don’t want to have that embarrassing moment where the bus doesn’t show up or there’s no official on the field.”
That’s happened a few times over the past 19 years, but it’s otherwise been a rewarding ride for the Linden High School graduate.
There’s nothing like watching programs which struggled in the 1990s suddenly become competitive, said Yesinko, under dedicated leadership from new generations of teachers or coaches. And seeing student-athletes succeed, oftentimes returning to share their success with Linden, is its own special bonus.
“I’ve been here a long time. Seeing somebody like a Desmond Wade, who was probably one of the greatest basketball players to come out of the school, come back and become our freshman basketball coach — that’s rewarding,” said Yesinko. “Watching guys like that, who were successful, come back and give back to the community.”
Looking up to Linden figures is how, in many ways, Yesinko modeled his own career. While he was attending school he looked up to guys like physical education teacher Tom Hogland, he said, “a born leader,” as well as many others.
And Yesinko has been rewarded for his efforts, in turn. During the final Linden High School football game of the season, for example, the team handed Yesinko the game ball and honored his career in the district. Over the years, Yesinko also racked up his fair share of accolades: In 2004 he was named the Union County Athletic Director of the Year, and last year he received the 2014 DAANJ Sectional Award of Merit for Central Jersey.
That last award was “probably one of the highlights of my career,” said Yesinko. “Just to be honored by your peers — there’s four ADs they honor every year, at our annual workshop — just to be recognized by your peers, for everything that you do throughout your career, was really a nice honor.”
The recognition leaves Yesinko going out on a high note. Now on the agenda, he said, are the 19 youth baseball games he’s umpiring in the spring, a trip to the Caribbean and, maybe in a year’s time, returning to Linden High School to catch a football game, just like old times.