‘He was a class act’: Hopkinton athletics community remembers Rusty Wightman

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-20-2023 10:55 PM

Rusty Wightman had poured nearly five years into the Hopkinton girls’ soccer program and wouldn’t let a grim cancer diagnosis keep him away. 

He was the girls’ JV coach from 2018 through 2021, then had to step away from coaching. But he still attended as many Hopkinton girls’ soccer games as he could this past fall; he even traveled to Stevens for the varsity team’s playoff game.

“He wouldn’t sit on the fan side; he’d sit over on the bench,” Hawks varsity soccer coach Mike Zahn said. “I also let him talk at halftime, and he’d give his two cents on what the girls were doing well and what they could work on. I think the girls really appreciated that.”

It feels like a story that warrants praise and admiration, but the truth is that this was how Wightman operated. He genuinely cared about the program and soccer across the state and did all that he could to help. 

When Wightman passed away on Feb. 8 at the age of 51, it left a major void in the Hopkinton athletics family.

“We were thrilled to have him,” said Hopkinton athletic director Dan Meserve. “The teams that we’ve had that have been very successful, a good number of those players played for Rusty at one point or another. … He just had a wonderful personality around them. The kids really loved playing for him. He was a class act.”

A love of the game

Wightman became involved in coaching soccer through his daughters and fostered his love of the game with them. He later coached club teams in the area, Hopkinton’s JV girls’ team and was the president of the New Hampshire Soccer Association. 

All of those positions required a good deal of investment in exchange for little financial compensation and took time away from his full-time job running his construction business. But it was always worth it to him.

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“The amount of time and work that goes into (president of the NHSA) is crazy,” Zahn explained. “He’d have to take time off of work to travel around the country to go to these conventions and meetings and try and help the brand of soccer in New Hampshire. If he wasn’t working on his own business, he was working for soccer in New Hampshire. That’s one thing that coaches and players around the state have really appreciated with Rusty over the years.”

Soon after Wightman announced his cancer diagnosis last spring, Zahn set up a GoFundMe page to help him and his family. The campaign had raised nearly $35,000, while Zahn set a goal of $23,000.

“People that I never even would’ve expected to donate on his GoFundMe donated,” Zahn said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty amazing.’”

A resident of Hillsboro, Wightman became an adopted member of the Hopkinton community. After he passed away, community members and former players flooded Zahn with messages. 

“I’m not surprised at how much he meant to a lot of people,” he said.

“Team Rusty”

Throughout this past season, Zahn’s team honored Wightman with pregame shirts that had “Team Rusty” printed on them. Most of the varsity players had played for Wightman when they were on the JV team, so they felt this was the least they could do. 

His presence during games reflected that mutual bond.

“It really meant a lot to them that he would come back and see them when he was dealing with his own issues,” said Meserve. 

But when you’ve invested as much time as Wightman did in the program, he couldn’t just vanish. 

Zahn described Wightman as someone who was always willing to listen and give others his undivided attention. Even with all of his experience and knowledge of the game, he never acted superior to anybody else.

“There are a lot of coaches out there who have the years of experience that Rusty had, and they’d talk over you,” Zahn said. “Rusty never did that. He would sit there and listen and take in what I was trying to do and maybe give me a couple of suggestions here and there. He was a real patient guy. … He always made you feel like you were number one.”

That willingness to listen when so many would yell, to be patient when others would be overbearing, built that respect with his players over the years.  

All the winning helped, too. A couple of Wightman’s JV teams finished the season undefeated, according to Zahn, but that never drifted his focus from his foundational goal: make Hopkinton girls’ soccer as high level of a program as he could.

“He certainly helped make a mark on the soccer program and these kids,” Meserve said. “He’s really going to be missed.”

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