Sports

Legendary high school coach Jim Sylvia trades in his whistle for a guitar

It has become another summer rite of passage on Wollaston Beach. You have your typical beachgoers, bathing in the sun, some even venturing into the water. Fitness enthusiasts take advantage of the wide, paved sidewalks to walk, jog, rollerblade or bike next to the sea wall. Seafood lovers line up outside their favorite clam shack, whether it’s The Clam Box, or Tony’s Clam Shop.

Right in the middle of it all on Quincy Shore Drive is The Beachcomber, where Jim Sylvia wields a guitar most Saturday afternoons, taking a wide variety of requests as patrons sip their favorite beverage while enjoying the ocean breeze on the patio.

On a hot June day, Sylvia is again catering to the crowd, asking what they want to hear. When someone asks for John Mellencamp, Sylvia complies with “Pink Houses.” As the song comes to an end, he receives a rousing ovation, but the requestor is not satisfied and has a specific Mellencamp tune in mind.

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“What about “Jack and Diane”?” she yells.

“’Jack and Diane’? Sure, we can do that. Why not,” Sylvia says with a shrug. And with that he’s playing another Mellencamp song, much to the delight of the crowd.

It’s all par for the course for Sylvia.

“I do this because I like to, not because I have to,” says Sylvia. “If it became work, or something I needed to do, I wouldn’t do it.”

Sylvia’s easygoing demeanor is a big reason why he has such a devoted following, but it appears to be a bit of a contrast to his intense approach to what was his day job. Sylvia served as a teacher at Hanover High School for 36 years, where he coached boys soccer for 27 years, hockey for 33 years, and just completed his 35th season coaching girls tennis.

He was named coach of the year for both soccer and hockey by The Boston Globe on several occasions, leading the hockey team to three state titles in 1997, 2001 and 2007. In 2010, he was inducted into the Massachusetts State Coaches Association Hockey Hall of Fame as part of an impressive class that also included Catholic Memorial’s Bill Hanson, BC High’s Joe McCabe, Dan Doyle of Lincoln-Sudbury, and Jack Heavey of Needham and Newton North. He stepped down as the coach for the soccer and hockey programs in 2011.

Retirement didn’t entirely agree with Sylvia. He still serves as a substitute teacher, and he enjoyed being off in the fall, not having to coach soccer. He missed being away from the rink in the winter of 2011-12 though, so when Marshfield AD Lou Silva was looking for a new girls hockey coach, he asked Sylvia.

“He knew I had been looking to coach,” said Sylvia. “So when he asked me if I’d be interested in coaching girls, I said ‘Sure’.”

Last winter Sylvia returned to the rink with the Marshfield High girls hockey team. Longtime assistant Butch Fonseca joined him behind the bench. The Rams had gone 5-13-2 the previous year, but in Sylvia’s first season at the helm, they went 13-7 and qualified for the state tournament. He is already looking ahead to next winter.

“We’re looking forward to making the program better and better,” said Sylvia. “It’s going to be something that takes a while, but we’ll get through it together.”

The transition from the boys game to girls has been a smooth one. Sylvia had experience coaching girls in the tennis program at Hanover, and his hockey team won the state title in 2001 with Globe All-Scholastic Marissa Hourihan in net. Still, there were minor adjustments to be made.

“It’s a little bit different,” said Sylvia. “But not much. It’s still growing. The enthusiasm and dedication to the game the girls show is unbelievable.”

Sylvia credits his love for hockey to his older brother Bob.

“My brother Bob was a big influence on me, as far as the game of hockey goes, and as everything else too,” said Sylvia. “My father died when I was 18, and so Bob was like the father figure in the family. He’s eight years older than I am, and he’ll hate that I told you that,” he adds with a laugh.

Until school begins again this fall, he’s back playing the guitar. It’s been a life-long passion, going back to his days growing up in Roslindale.

“My cousin, Jack McNulty, started playing the guitar, and we were very close,” said Sylvia. “So I decided to give it a try.”

He’s been billed as a Jimmy Buffet cover act, and while he clearly is a big fan and plays a number of Buffet songs, Sylvia’s repertoire is actually much more diverse. He can delve into country, playing contemporary artists like Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, and Toby Keith.

“I’ve always been a Jimmy Buffet fan,” said Sylvia. “I’ve been a fan of Jimmy forever.”

So, how does a kid from Roslindale end up performing country music? It’s another interest he shares with his brother Bob, who was also an accomplished high school hockey coach at Quincy and is a guitar aficionado.

“Bob and I became big Waylon Jennings fans. We went and saw him play in Cambridge, and got to go back stage and meet him,” said Sylvia. “We’ve always liked Waylon, and of course Johnny Cash. It’s just one of those things. I liked the music. I liked the beat.”

He also reaches back a little further when performing, offering up covers of Roy Orbison and other older musicians.

“I’ve always done old time rock ‘n’ roll,” said Sylvia. “Of course, I always tell people I play that because I have an older brother and sister, not because I’m that old,” Sylvia adds with a smile. “I’ve always enjoyed them, and have had a lot of fun through the years playing that kind of music.”

Still, it’s one thing to learn to play the guitar as a hobby, it’s another thing to play in front of a group of people.

“We used to have a band,” said Sylvia. “We would play the Green Harbor Yacht Club. One night we played, and we all made $15 apiece, and we thought we were in the big time. It was a great summer job. I mean, we used to caddy at The Marshfield Country Club and do 18 holes, and we would only make $3. So to be able to make $15 on a gig, that’s five days of caddying.”

You never know what kind of an audience Sylvia will be performing in front of. Some shows, he’s playing to the parents of his players. Other shows, there can be former players in the crowd.

“It’s different now,” said Sylvia. “Now I’m getting former players showing up with their kids, and it just reminds you of how old you really are,” said Sylvia with a laugh.

It adds up to a great way to spend a summer afternoon, but good luck keeping track of Sylvia’s schedule. After decades of coaching, Sylvia is adept at dealing with the media, but you won’t find him promoting his music career. He is content with having his appearances spread by word of mouth.

“I know, one of my daughters was telling me I should,” Sylvia said when asked if he had a website where people could look up his schedule. “But it’s really just about having fun.”

So while you may not see him on Facebook, you can catch him most Saturday afternoons at The Beachcomber in Wollaston. If you’re lucky, you might also find him playing a yacht club in Marshfield or at a bar on Nantasket Beach or Plymouth throughout the summer.

“Guitar-playing has always been fun for me,” said Sylvia. “I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s never been about anything but fun. I always said that the day it ever became about business, I’d never be interested in playing again.”

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