BILLERICA — When you have coached a team to nearly 550 career victories, with at least half of them coming in the same gym, it is pretty fair to say that you have permanently stamped your name on that venue. That has certainly been the case for long time Shawsheen Tech Wrestling coach Mark Donovan, who for the better part of three decades has made the Shawsheen High Gym a house of horrors for Rams opponents.
There is little doubt that Donovan has at least symbolically etched his name into the history of the gym with his tremendous accomplishments as coach of the Rams, and at a recent Shawsheen Tech School Committee meeting, the committee members unanimously voted to make it official, as the Shawsheen gym will be renamed in Donovan’s honor.
Assuming there is a high school wrestling season this winter, Donovan will be entering his 37th season at the helm of the Rams and he has left an indelible mark not just with his outstanding won-loss record, but also with the impact he has made on the lives of countless students.
Charlie Lyons, who served as Superintendent of Schools for Shawsheen from 1987 to 2015, could not have been happier to learn of the honor being bestowed upon Donovan. He also took a little pride in knowing that he played a role in bringing Donovan, a 1986 Tewksbury High graduate, on board with Shawsheen as just a 19-year old at the start if his career.
“I actually hired Mark as coach back in 1987. It was one of the first things I did as superintendent,” Lyons recalled. "I think he has had more victories in that gym than all of the other coaches combined. He has had just an incredible career. He took a Division 2 or 3 program and turned it into one of the best Division 1 programs in the state. And more importantly, he turned so many kids into young men of perseverance, who were not only successful as wrestlers, but went on to be productive in life."
It might be impossible to check the math on Lyons statement about Donovan having more wins in the gym than all other coaches combined, but it is very likely true.
In addition to his nearly 550 victories, he has also led the Rams to 25 Commonwealth Athletic Conference championships, including the last 12 in a row, to go along with 19 state vocational titles. Donovan has also coached 49 Division 1 North individual champions, 13 Massachusetts Division 1 champions, eight All-State champions, four New England champions and a three-time National High School All-American.
The Tewksbury native is also a two-time Hall of Famer, being elected to the Massachusetts Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009, and being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2014.
Donovan has earned the respect of coaches and athletes throughout the state and the country for that matter, including Shawsheen athletic director and head football coach Al Costabile, who had Donovan as a member of his football coaching staff ever since he arrived at Shawsheen 23 years ago. Costabile has seen Donovan’s impact on young athletes over the years, and agreed wholeheartedly with the committee’s decision.
"It is so fitting and appropriate that the Shawsheen gymnasium is named after Mark. He has influenced and molded the lives of so many people in so many ways. He is a unique person that has done so much for so many in a truly staggering fashion,” Costabile said. "When I first met him 23 years ago, I knew I met someone special from day one. He epitomizes the meaning of what a coach is and should be. I am so proud of this tribute that is honoring such a great person and coach."
Costabile and Lyons thoughts are shared by every member of the Shawsheen School Committee, who voted unanimously to rename the gym. Committee member Ron Fusco, a former teacher at Shawsheen and long time friend of Donovan, brought the motion forward and it took no time at all for all other members to approve.
Committee member Bob Peterson of Wilmington was more than happy to vote in favor of the renaming.
“I can’t think of a better honor for a better guy. I can’t think of anyone, other than Charlie Lyons, who epitomizes what Shawsheen Tech is all about better than Mark Donovan,” Peterson said. “I don’t think there should have, could have or would have been anything but approval of this honor. Kudos to Ron Fusco for bringing this forward. He knows Mark better than anyone and he knows what he has meant to Shawsheen and what he has meant to so many students at Shawsheen.”
Peterson also says that Donovan deserves a great deal of credit for coaching each athlete to reach their maximum potential.
“I can say without reservation that he loved those kids and treated them as if they were his own. I have played a lot of sports in my life and I don’t think there is a harder sport to compete in than wrestling, and he consistently got the best out of all of his kids. He was not only a coach to these kids, but he was a mentor as well.”
As for the man who brought the motion forward, Fusco says the honor was a long time coming for Donovan. Fusco, a retired Shawsheen Tech Biology teacher, taught at Shawsheen Tech for 30 years before retiring in 2017, was appointed to the school committee in 2019. Getting the gym renamed in Donovan’s honor was a labor love for him.
In presenting his idea to the committee members, Fusco told them “I think it altogether fitting that this committee, on behalf of the district, honor coach Donovan by attaching his name to the space that has forever captured decades of memories for these generations of athletes, their parents, and — for many now — their children.”
Now that it has been decided, Fusco is thrilled to see his friend and former colleague receive the recognition he deserves. In addition to his personal relationship with Donovan, Fusco has also seen first hand the impact Donovan has had on young athletes, as one of his sons, Joe Fusco, was Division 1 and All-State champion for the Rams in 2016, while his other son, Ron Jr. was an assistant on Donovan's staff for several years.
"I have known Mark since 1988 and have gotten to know him very well over the years while working with him and also because of my sons. I have admired him for years. He has helped so many students at Shawsheen Tech,” Fusco said. “His success has been amazing with the league titles and everything else, but also with how many kids have gone on to have great success after leaving Shawsheen."
Recently Donovan has had to fight through a tougher opponent than any he had ever faced on the mat, as in June he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. It has been the battle of his life for Donovan, who has approached his treatments with the same determination he has taught his wrestlers to have in their matches.
But Donovan’s current condition did not play a part in Fusco’s push to get Donovan’s name on the gym where he had so much success.
"We are all pulling for Mark, but this has nothing to do with what is going on in his personal life. This is something we have wanted to do for a long time, and it is a very well deserved honor for Mark,” Fusco said. "I am very proud to be part of naming the gym the Coach Mark Donovan Gymnasium. I was given the idea by my sons and got further help from Dr. Robert Kanellas and Coach Doug Pratt. Mark has given tirelessly to Shawsheen for years."
Lyons, who knows a little something about being honored at Shawsheen Tech, having had the school’s new athletic complex named in his honor in 2016, is thrilled to have Donovan’s name join his as part of the Shawsheen athletic facilities.
And while kudos and good luck wishes have poured in for Donovan since his cancer diagnosis, Lyons says it is all a reflection of the number of lives that Donovan has touched during his career.
"The world is pulling for him right now, because he has always pulled for the world. He always gave his best for everybody, which is why everybody is giving him their best right now,” Lyons said. "In my judgment, Mark epitomizes what vocational education and especially what Shawsheen Tech is all about, and particularly what Shawsheen Tech is all about. He also epitomizes what hard work and dedication are all about. Nothing pleases me more than to see him receiving the recognition he deserves."