Passionate Fazio was a great friend

His record as an assistant and a head coach probably suggests that Foge Fazio was a good, but not necessarily a great, football coach. As a friend, however, Fazio was one of the best.

Once an assistant coach with the Falcons, Jets, Redskins, Browns and Vikings, Fazio died Wednesday evening after a long battle with leukemia. He was 71. That Fazio will be missed by his legion of close friends is a monumental understatement.

Somehow it is fitting that Fazio's passing was confirmed during Wednesday night's Pitt-Duquesne basketball game, the final college hoops contest to be played at the Mellon Arena, soon to be imploded when a new facility is completed across the street. That the Panthers prevailed over the Dukes in double overtime was similarly apropos, given that Fazio, despite being born in neighboring West Virginia, was the consummate "Pitt Man." A linebacker at the school, he later became an assistant coach and head coach at Pitt.

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson employed the term "passionate" to describe Fazio's love of his alma mater. And that's certainly the case in summarizing Fazio's zeal for all things related to the university from which we both graduated. But truth is, Fazio was passionate about everything he did. Passionate about football, about his family, about life in general, about nurturing friendships, even about his silly signature chuckle.

It has been said about other men as well. But if you were fortunate enough to count Foge Fazio as a friend, then you had a friend for life, no matter the circumstances.

When I moved to Atlanta in the summer of 1989 to cover the Falcons for the Journal-Constitution, there was a small but loyal support group awaiting my arrival. It was the kind of local friendships I lacked in my previous two moves, to Chicago and then to Indianapolis. Perhaps by serendipity, my best friend, who has been so for more than 40 years, had settled in an Atlanta suburb 20 minutes from my home. And there also was Foge, then an assistant coach on Marion Campbell's staff with the Atlanta Falcons.

Because my wife and two kids remained behind in Indianapolis attempting to sell our house, I lived for three months in the small motel room that the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution leased on the Falcons' complex. There were countless nights that Foge dropped by to chat to make sure I was muddling along acceptably. One night, he cryptically told me to get dressed because we were going out to an unnamed place I would enjoy. Fazio took me that evening to the monthly meeting of the "Pittsburgh-Atlanta Club," a group of about 500 rowdy people who imported Iron City beer for the event, talked Pitt and Steelers football until late into the night, and mingled as only real 'Burgers could do.

For one night, at least, I was home. And Foge Fazio was the welcoming committee.

That '89 season was incredibly difficult for the Falcons and, by extension, anyone even remotely associated with the club in an ancillary manner. Two players on the active roster died during the season. Another one passed away the previous spring, before I had arrived. The team was awful, finally quitting on Campbell. He then quit on the team, literally, with four games remaining on the schedule.

I remember visiting with then-Falcons president Rankin Smith Jr. during the run of misfortune, and he simply shook his head and said soberly: "There's just a black cloud hanging over this team."

If that were the case, Foge Fazio, who never lost his sense of humor or his graciousness toward people who were little more than acquaintances, was the silver lining.

And for those people to whom he was a friend, he remained so until Wednesday night.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.