EUNICE — Joe Nagata won his share of football games while coaching Eunice and St. Edmund high schools, but one attribute seems to override everything else he accomplished.
“I think God gave him a certain gift,” said Jen Nagata, his widow. “For some reason, Joe knew how to handle kids. When I think about him, I say to myself, ‘How did he do that?’ ”
Nagata’s impact on both schools is still appreciated, as last year some of his former players created the annual Joe Nagata Memorial Jamboree, which will be played again Thursday night — this time at St. Edmund.
Eunice plays DeRidder in the first game beginning at 6:30 p.m., while the St. Edmund-Port Barre matchup follows.
It’s not easy to coach teams at two different schools in the same city, but Nagata pulled it off, coaching Eunice for 11 seasons beginning in 1963 and then later at St. Edmund, where he guided the Blue Jays to a pair of state championship games.
Former Eunice police chief Tony Fuselier, who attended both schools while Nagata was there, said Nagata was adept at responding to the needs of every student, not just the athletes.
“When people talk about Joe to this day, they recall the guidance that he gave to them,” Fuselier said. “It wasn’t just the athletes that got advice from him. There are people even now who say that Joe’s guidance affected their lives, set them on the right path.”
Jen Nagata said last year’s jamboree was emotional for her and her family as they stood on the field with many of her husband’s former players, who were there for the inaugural event.
“It was just beautiful,” she said. “Joe’s boys came from all over to honor their coach. All the people who knew him from both schools were there and it was just beautiful. Coach (Paul Trosclair at Eunice) and (cThomas David of St. Edmund) did such a great job. They were really great to all of us, Joe’s family.”
Nagata’s former assistants will be honored during Thursday night’s games.
Fuselier said the framework of the Nagata Memorial effort began about three years ago when a group of Nagata’s former players began to discuss ways of honoring their former coach.
“The idea they came up with is a jamboree,” Fuselier said. “I mean what better way to honor Joe than to have both of his football teams host a jamboree to remember him.”
The jamboree has been funded mainly through donations and private funding.
Additional revenues were obtained by an annual auction during a combined meeting of the Eunice and St. Edmund booster clubs.
At last year’s auction, a whistle used by Nagata brought $450, Fuselier said.
“(Former St. Edmund quarterback and head coach Scotty Richard) said the dents in the whistle came from Joe hitting him over the helmet so many times,” Fuselier said.
Nagata, who played football at LSU during the 1940s under Bernie Moore, also established himself as a patriot during World War II, serving as a volunteer in an all-Japanese American U.S. Army combat unit that fought in Italy.
Nagata was a staff sergeant as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat team, whose soldiers earned 18,143 combat medals during the 1944 Italian campaign.
“Joe received a Bronze Star and many other combat citations,” Fuselier said. “You read about what those men did and how courageous they were. That’s so remarkable because all those men including Joe were volunteers. We also want to honor that military service.”
Jen Nagata, now 85, said Joe Nagata’s father was of Japanese ancestry and his mother was Irish. Before the war, she said Nagata’s family operated a fresh produce market on Second Street in Eunice.
Joe Nagata, she said, retained his reticence about his combat experiences for most of his life.
“He did not speak about it,” she said. “Every so often, Joe would say something. Usually he just said the men he served with were the bravest he had ever known. Joe and the men he served with were all volunteers. Some of those men were living in internment camps, yet they signed up.
“Joe said he volunteered because he and the others wanted to prove they were there for America.”
Jen Nagata, also a Eunice native, said she first became acquainted with her future husband while watching him play football at LSU.
“I was so young back then, an eighth-grader,” she said. “My brother-in-law would take me to games and he would point out Joe, No. 11. I had no idea that’s who I would marry someday.
“When I was attending LSU later on, I met Joe, who went back there to finish his degree. He was such a gentleman, so polite,” she said.
Nagata began his coaching career in the 1950s under legendary Eunice coach Faize Mahfouz, who was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1981.
After Mahfouz left, Nagata became the head coach there and later went to St. Edmund.
Jen Nagata said her husband’s firing at St. Edmund caused some lingering bitterness for her, something she said was alleviated only as the jamboree effort began to materialize.
“Once it got started, I was OK,” she said. “It has helped me to heal. There has been a lot of work put in to getting (the jamboree) done from people at both schools. They’ve done a great job for me and my family.”