BRISTOL - Being the Bristol Central boys outdoor track and field coach is one of the many roles in which Tamara Stafford-Kirk thrives.
Stafford-Kirk also serves as the cross country coach at the school and is one of its physical education teachers.
“For me, I am literally living my dream,” the Bristol native said. “I wanted to come back to Bristol and make a difference. I hope in some small way that’s what I’ve done.”
Making a difference is exactly what Stafford-Kirk has done over her 20 years of coaching.
“She definitely builds bonds with people,” Hunter Peterson said. “You see it with how many people come back. She’s played such an important role in people’s lives and she’ll definitely do that to mine.”
Growing up, Stafford-Kirk took an interest in teaching and coaching, inspired by her physical education teacher at Bristol Eastern, Patricia Tomkil.
“She’s been my mentor and she was kind of my inspiration,” Stafford said. “I just watched her closely in high school and thought ‘this is cool, you teach phys-ed and get to be around a sports atmosphere all day.’”
For Stafford-Kirk, her first two years teaching physical education were at O’Connell Elementary School, before moving on to teach at Bristol Central.
Stafford-Kirk’s first coaching job was as the Rams’ indoor track coach, a position she held from 1998 to 2007. In 1999 she took over as the cross country coach and then in 2006 became the boys outdoor track coach.
All three roles have given Stafford-Kirk memories - some of the most memorable being the Class L cross country championship won in 2010, a runner-up finish in Class L indoor track in 2006-07 and Jillian Sullivan winning the individual cross country state championship in 2003.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years teaching and coaching,” Stafford said. “I don’t feel that old. I have the best job in the world.”
Sullivan went on to be an All-American at UConn and ran at Nationals in Indiana, which Stafford-Kirk and assistant track coach Alasia Griebel attended.
She was back for the meet against Bristol Eastern and tries to get out to as many meets as possible. Stafford-Kirk was the bridesmaid at Sullivan’s wedding, a testament to Stafford-Kirk and the bond she builds with her athletes both during and following their four years at the school.
“I think so many kids wouldn’t have gone to college or been where they are now without her help,” Sullivan said. “She’s made a huge impact on the community.”
While many memories have been made, many more seem likely to come in cross country, outdoor track and outside of athletics.
“She definitely tries to teach us right from wrong and what’s best to do in certain situations,” senior captain Elijah Ortiz said. “Not just in track but in life, too. She teaches people to not give up, work harder on the track and in their studies.”
At the recent meet against Bristol Eastern, Stafford-Kirk’s former athletes were scattered around the track to watch Bristol Central beat the Lancers in both boys and girls.
Four of the five assistant coaches for the Rams are prior athletes of Stafford-Kirk’s: Matt Boissonneault, Griebel, Paul Ryskowski and the current girls outdoor track coach, Kiara Bonilla.
Boissonneault was a senior during Stafford-Kirk’s first year as the cross country coach, also the first year at the school for Sullivan.
Boissonneault has picked up different coaching strategies from Stafford-Kirk that he’s integrated into the Bristol Central wrestling team as head coach.
Getting the best out of each athlete regardless of ability is what the two both emphasize.
“The people who are coming back is a testament to the type of impact she’s had,” Boissonneault said. “She coaches the individual. As well as knowing the sport and the technique, she really caters it to the individual; and whether it’s a state place winner or somebody who is just a first-year runner, it’s always about getting your personal record and being the best that you can.”
Bonilla has followed in Stafford-Kirk’s footsteps, as she is now a physical education teacher at West Bristol K-8 school and a coach, just like her mentor and friend.
Like many others, Stafford-Kirk’s influence went beyond the athletics landscape.
“She’s impacting hundreds of kids every day,” Kiara Bonilla said. “I don’t think this program would be what it is without her. All but one of the coaches here are former athletes of hers, so that is something to be said right there, that we want to come back and coach and continue that tradition. She’s the heartbeat of this program.”
Stafford-Kirk has seen many athletes come through the school over her years, and while some athletes come and go at the high school level, Stafford-Kirk makes sure she has the type of impact that makes them never truly leave.
“I want them to be better people after their four years,” Stafford said. “I want them to understand that hard work pays off and not to be afraid of hard work. I want them to chase their dreams. I was raised by a single mother and we struggled. We had to fight for things we wanted and sometimes things we needed. But she taught [my brother Jason and I] never to give up, and I want these kids to know that you can do anything if you want to. I tell the kids I’m going to be tough on them, but I’m always going to be there for them, and once they got me, they’ll always have me.”
Dan Orencole can be reached at 860-973-1811 or