Glen Graham called Anthony Percival “the ultimate Eagle.”
Percival was a Cleveland Hill High School graduate who returned to his alma mater to coach track and to teach physical education. He ingrained himself in the Cheektowaga school's close-knit community, even after he retired nearly three years ago.
“Tony was about pride in the community, pride in the school,” said Graham, the football coach at Cleveland Hill. “A lot of people who are reaching out are remembering him as that, the ultimate eagle. I know there are thousands of people who will remember him that way. He was always about making the community as special as we could make it.”
Percival died Tuesday morning at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Williamsville. He was 59. A cause of death has not been released.
The Cleveland Hill football program confirmed his death in a post on social media. Condolences for Percival flooded a private group set up in his memory on Facebook. The group had more than 950 members by late Tuesday afternoon.
"Through teaching, Tony's impact on the world and his community was far outreaching," Percival's wife, Lisa Marie, wrote in a message to its members. "He did so much for others, so much for people and for the world. He was always there when you needed him and a shoulder to cry on. He was always there for everyone. Tony touched and impacted so many lives."
Percival graduated from Cleveland Hill in 1979 and played football at the University at Buffalo. A three-sport athlete (football, basketball and track) at Cleve Hill, he coached the school's boys track team from 1983 to 2010. Percival also taught at Gateway Longview and at Williamsville South before he joined the Cleveland Hill faculty in 1992.
Percival established a track and field juggernaut. The Eagles were 193-32 in his tenure as its head coach, and went undefeated in 13 seasons. Cleveland Hill won 14 divisional titles and 11 Section VI championships, and had six individual Section VI champions. He coached two state champions: Richard Clay in the 400-meter hurdles in 1999 and the 400 relay team of Robert Kelly, Ray Peoples, Ed Thomas and Brain Green in 2006.
Percival was named to the school's Wall of Fame in 2018.
“As a coach, Tony had a tremendous eye for talent, and that’s why we had such sustained success in track,” said Graham, who coached track with Percival. “He could see a kid in elementary school P.E. class and he would say, ‘This kid is going to sprint for us.’ And he did a great job of getting kids out for track, and keeping them engaged.”
Percival also had a way of motivating his track and field athletes, said Jeff Sabatino, a 1993 Cleveland Hill graduate who ran track for Percival, then became an assistant coach for the Eagles.
“I don’t know if there’s a more inspirational person I’ve ever met in my life,” said Sabatino, who now coaches football at John F. Kennedy in Cheektowaga. “As an athlete, you wanted to succeed, to see his happiness. As a coach, you wanted to be the best coach you could, because he was so amazing. As a rival, you wanted to be as competitive as you could.
“You hoped you could be a coach like Tony, and I hoped to emulate Tony.”
Ken McCracken is a Cleveland Hill graduate who was an assistant for Percival and now coaches track at Cheektowaga. He recalled Percival’s vibrant personality, and his ability to connect with students in the school.
“People that played sports, and people that didn’t he had a connection with anybody and everybody,” McCracken said. “He loved rock 'n' roll, too. He used lyrics from rock 'n' roll and songs to motivate people, and it was in his demeanor. He always turned something negative into finding something positive about it. It was always about making sure you could do or be the best at whatever the situation was.”
Percival also coached junior varsity football, which won eight championships, and junior varsity and varsity girls basketball at Cleveland Hill.
He was the public address announcer at Cleveland Hill’s football and basketball games. He was the Varsity Club president, he raised money to purchase championship banners that hang in the Cleveland Hill gymnasium and he was a former Cleveland Hill Hall of Fame president.
“If you talk to anyone in this area, they will say he touched their lives,” McCracken said. “He was truly a part of this community. He grew up here, he taught here, he still lives here. Everyone gravitated to him and radiated from him.”
Percival retired from teaching in June 2017, and he lived in Cleveland Hill. He is survived by his wife, Lisa Marie; mother, Angela; and cousins Donna, John, Marc, John Jr. and Christina.