Kirk Ventiquattro recalls when John Zulberti used to visit the north country, especially his visits to Carthage’s lacrosse team.
Besides touting the lacrosse equipment he was selling at time, Zulberti, a former West Genesee and Syracuse University standout, would pass on his knowledge and wisdom about the sport.
The sudden death of Zulberti on Sunday has struck many in the lacrosse community, including those in the north country such as Ventiquattro, the former longtime Carthage coach.
“It’s just terrible, terrible news,” Ventiquattro said. “I was actually in Lake Placid (Monday) which right now is the center of the lacrosse world with the annual Lake Placid lacrosse tournament. There’s a lot of guys up there, former Syracuse guys and current coaches. We had some pretty good conversations about John and about all the great things that he did for lacrosse. ... Way too soon, that’s for sure. He was a good guy, he really was.”
Zulberti died at age 54, apparently drowning after possibly suffering a heart attack, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Zulberti, who Ventiquattro called “the grandfather of lacrosse,” excelled as a player and later as a businessman and promoter in the sport.
After he helped lead West Genesee to multiple state titles in boys lacrosse under longtime coach Mike Messere, Zulberti won a pair of consecutive national championships with Syracuse in 1988 and 1989.
As a high-scoring and impact attackman, he inspired younger players to excel and several from the area, such as Casey Powell and younger brother Ryan Powell, went on to do so for the Orange.
“I started playing lacrosse at Carthage in 1988, that’s when John was in his prime at Syracuse, he was a junior on that team which won the national championship,” said former player and current Carthage boys lacrosse coach Jason Coffman. “We used to go down and watch, we watched the final four and the championship. I will never forget going to my first Syracuse game ever seeing this attackman run onto the field with bright orange Chuck Taylors and thinking to myself ‘oh my God, that would be the coolest thing in the world, this guy’s the greatest thing ever.’”
“The conversation I had (Tuesday) morning was with an assistant coach at Homer,” said Ventiquattro, who coached boys lacrosse at Carthage for three decades, starting with its first varsity season in 1989. “And he and I coached at the All-American lacrosse camp back in the late 80s and early 90s when John was one of the best players in the country.
“And then he began his career as a representative for Brine, Brine Lacrosse was like a leader in lacrosse back in that era. John pretty much had a traveling show, pushing the Brine products.”
This included stops in Carthage where Zulberti would share his knowledge with the Comets’ boys lacrosse program.
“He would come and he would do a demonstration with wall ball,” Ventiquattro said. “He came to Carthage several times when Casey Powell was a sophomore, junior and a senior, gave demonstrations and made sure that he made Brine lacrosse sticks available to our kids, because it was important for a player of Casey’s caliber, and then of Jason Coffman’s caliber, and Ryan (Powell’s) caliber that they used Brine’s stick, because believe it or not, that’s when they sold sticks, was when the best players used them.”
“He came up and talked to us a couple times and he talked to me about using my size and using my strengths when I was dodging the goal,” Coffman recalled. “He always talked about keeping my stick tight inside, and absolutely he had an influence on me because he was who we strived to be like.”
Zulberti, who went on to coach and teach at the youth lacrosse level, was a big proponent of wall ball, the practice of a lacrosse player honing his or her skills at one of the most basic levels, Ventiquattro said.
“Tthat’s where you develop your hand-eye coordination, your passing and catching skills,” Ventiquattro said. “And John was like the first guy to stress the importance of wall ball and the whole progression that he used to develop his skills. He was a wizard with the stick.”
Ventiquattro continued: “But John would come up to Carthage, he had to come there half a dozen times like in a three- or four-year period and he would give mini clinics out on the old Pine Field. He was like the first guy to start talking about ‘the wall, and the wall is your best friend.’ He’s never too tired to play catch, he never throws a bad pass unless you give him one, and things like that.
“And he developed a routine and then he would talk about that and I can see him doing this. He used to wear these high-top sneakers, funny-looking things when he played the Dome, these orange high-tops.”
Zulberti left a lasting legacy at Syracuse, right from his first collegiate season, when he recorded 74 points, including 41 assists, both freshman records.
“He was something else and he played with the Gaits,” Ventiquattro said. “And he had these unbelievable skills that he really didn’t use at West Genny, because when you play at West Genny, you really play a patterned form of lacrosse. But when he got to Syracuse, he got a chance to be a lot more artful, using all-the-back stuff and all the skills that he had, which he didn’t really showcase at West Genny.
Zulberti became a four-time All-American at Syracuse and totaled 267 career points, which now ranks sixth in program history.
“He might be the best skilled lacrosse player that ever was,” Ventiquattro said. “Just with his sheer ability to use both hands, he’s like a wizard, maybe there are other guys who equaled him, including the Powell brothers, among others, but certainly nobody’s had better skills than John.”
“John was a great player, I was very fortunate to play with him up in Lake Placid a couple different times, he was just an unbelievable player and a person that loved life and lived life to the fullest,” said Coffman, who went on to star at Salisbury University in lacrosse. “And he was involved with lacrosse right up until the time of his passing, I believe he was still involved with Liam Banks’ club teams down in Atlanta.”
Ventiquattro recently traveled to Lake Placid, where the annual lacrosse event was taking place.
“Lacrosse is such a small world as anybody in lacrosse would say,” Ventiquattro said. “We talk about it all the time, everybody knows each other and John was just one of those guys and everybody loved him. He was a great guy, an ambassador for the game and he shared the secrets, his secrets, things that made him one of the best attackmen to ever play the game.”
Ventiquattro added about Zulberti:
“As far as I’m concerned, he was the grandfather of lacrosse,” he said. “Because of that beard that I saw the last time I saw him, I just kind of shook my head, but he had a smile on his face and he looked like a mountain man the last time I saw him. But he was the same John, just a sweet guy.”