TORONTO – Greg Vanney is his father’s son.
Although soft-spoken, Toronto FC’s coach is known for his dogged work rate off the field, his meticulous attention to detail, and his tireless pursuit of perfection in preparing his club for its games every week.
Vanney comes by those qualities, in part, from his father William, a former high school administrator and athletic director who balanced a career and a family life that included raising three children and caring for his wife who had physical challenges for close to 40 years.
In 1979, Vanney’s father and his mother, Jeanette, were involved in a gruesome car wreck when they were plowed into by another car. William was driving, and he broke his sternum in the crash. Jeanette wasn’t so lucky.
“In those days, it wasn’t as commonplace or the law to wear a seatbelt, and a lot of people didn’t. So, they were hit head on going on the freeway. When the [other] driver came cross and hit them head on, my mom was ejected into the windshield. She didn’t go all the way through, but her face did, and that became the starting point of a long journey of surgeries, constant pain and various things,” Vanney recalled in a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet ahead of Father’s Day.
Vanney estimated his mom, who taught kindergarten for 40 years, had close to 50 operations in the ensuing decades stemming from the car crash. It took a physical and mental toll not only on Jeanette, but also William.
“Trying to help her get through all the challenges and trying to raise us, it wasn’t easy for dad. Mom was having medical challenges and he was trying to deal with work, and three kids, and deal with my mom who needed a lot attention – her jaw being wired shut and all kinds of things that she went through with surgeries,” Vanney said.
“It was life changing for my mom, but also for my dad. I was young so I really didn’t remember a lot about my mom before the accident. My sister and brother tell me she was a little bit different because her experience of the accident and everything that came after it, it changed her, and my dad as well.”
Vanney was only four years old at the time of the crash. His brother and sister were eight and five years older. Vanney was sent to Virginia for several months to live with relatives while his dad and siblings initially took care of his mom.
“As a family were we in different places trying to get through that. My mom’s side of family was there in Arizona and they helped us out, but it was challenging. My mom for a number of years, it you had ever met her, you’d have never have known the challenges she was going through. She always had a smile on her face. She was always the kindergarten teacher no matter where you encountered her,” Vanney offered.
Needless to say, William has been a major reference point for Vanney, both professional and personally. TFC’s coach takes great inspiration from his father in terms on how he goes about his job and how he and his wife, Amy, raise their four young children.
“His work ethic, his attention to making sure to take care of his family and his responsibilities for all of us was always there. It’s funny, as kids if we ever wanted anything, we went to my mom. We didn’t really go to my dad, but my mom would always say, ‘go talk to your dad,’ and then you kinda knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Vanney said.
“I think that’s similar in our household with our kids. My wife and I have a fair amount discipline in our house, and we want them to respect people, and respect the environment in terms of where they are at, and respect what other people think and need. I think a lot of that came from my dad.”
Before becoming coach of Toronto FC in 2014, Vanney enjoyed a successful playing career as a defender, turning out for a number of MLS clubs and French outfit Bastia, and making close to 40 appearances for the U.S. national team. He played in 270 MLS regular-season games, most of them for the LA Galaxy where he was teammates with David Beckham, before retiring in 2008.
Since the age of four, he knew he wanted to be a soccer player. It was all he could talk about, and both his mom and dad encouraged him as he pursued his dream.
“They were nothing but supportive all the way through. Driving me to and from practice 45 minutes away; they did that two to three times a week since I was 11. You see that as the norm now, but it wasn’t really the norm back in those days for people to go that far for training. The amount of hours they committed to help me with soccer opportunities, and the amount of money – we didn’t grow up with a ton of money, but what they had they committed towards their kids,” Vanney said.
William and Jeanette met in the 1960s when she was attending Western State Colorado University. They tied the knot while they were still teenagers – “It was a different time,” Vanney joked – and remained married for 53 years before Jeanette passed away on April 11, 2017 in an Arizona hospital with William by her side. She was 69.
TFC had a bye last week, and Vanney flew to Arizona to attend his mother’s memorial service.
“It went very well. Dad was able to take a big deep breath,” Vanney said.
“It was beautiful. Exactly how [my grandmother] would have wanted to be honoured,” said TFC defender Eriq Zavaleta, who is Vanney’s nephew.
It’s been an adjustment for William since Jeanette’s death. That’s understandable. You don’t simply move on after losing your partner of over 50 years. During his trip home, Vanney not only consoled his father, but talked to him about having a new purpose in life, and the importance of having a reason to get out of bed every morning.
“It’s funny because I always leaned on him for advice. Now, I’m giving it to him. We’ve come full circle,” Vanney said.
He is his father’s son.