Courtesy of Hillel Day School

Tony Sanders, known for his contagious smile and laugh, brought a new perspective to all the students and parents he interacted with.

Tony Sanders, Hillel Day School coach of many sports and gym teacher for 23 years, carried his contagious smile and positivity with him both on and off the court. He inspired decades worth of students, parents and Hillel community members. 

Sanders passed away on April 2 due to complications from the novel coronavirus. He was 60 years old, resided in Detroit and is survived by his wife, Leslie, and two sons, Kevin and Derek.  

“During the 23 years at Hillel, he helped to build various athletic programs and instill a love for sports. Tony valued sportsmanship and healthy competition,” Nicole Miller, Hillel’s athletic director, said in a statement. “Over the years Tony coached boys and girls basketball, girls volleyball and boys and girls soccer. It is estimated that during that time he coached nearly 2,500 Hillel athletes.” 

Miller recognized Sanders as not only a gym teacher and coach, but also a staff member who “encompassed everything Hillel.” He spent recess daily with students, attended shabbatonim and chaperoned field trips. Sanders always maintained his positive and joyful attitude, which radiated throughout the school.  

Courtesy of Hillel Day School.

“He had an absolutely infectious smile and a big, belly laugh,” Rabbi Jason Miller of Farmington Hills said. “He was a phenomenal coach who really specialized in what I call individual coaching. Tony would take individual players aside and help them improve their game and also inspire them. He built players up by telling them the positives and then telling them what they should work.”  

Before becoming a part of the Hillel community, Sanders was an assistant coach for the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit’s varsity basketball team. Miller was a player for Sanders during his senior year of high school (1993-1994) and remembers the little moments he spent with Sanders.  

“I could always make him laugh. He used to say, “Miller, you’re such a clown,” as he was just laughing hysterically,” Miller said. “It was this laugh that was a sort of a boisterous, big, belly laugh where his whole body would move when he was laughing.”  

Janice Traison of West Bloomfield developed a great relationship with Sanders because he coached her three daughters, Liz, Rebecca and Randi, in basketball, soccer and volleyball from 2001- 2012.  

“He was just this giant teddy bear. Every time I came into the school he always gave me a hug and asked me how my girls were doing,” Traison said. “All of my girls went to Frankel Jewish Academy for high school, and he would even come to their high school games to watch them play.” 

Although Sanders was not Jewish, he brought a different perspective to the Hillel community and to the students he coached.  

“As an African-American, he showed the community a different world,” Traison said. “He taught the kids to be a team player and to truly love the sport they played. There was never any shouting and he wove life lessons into the sports he coached. The kids just loved him and he was the heart and soul of that school.” 

Miller also remembers Sanders as being respectful of Hillel’s Jewish practices.  

“He gladly put on a kippah during services and celebrated Jewish holidays with staff and students,” Miller said. “No matter what was asked of Coach Tony, he was willing to help and offer support. Tony always had a smile that made him the light in the halls of Hillel.” 

Jacob Schlussel, a senior at Berkley High School, had Sanders as his basketball coach for three years and formed a strong relationship with him. That continued even after Schlussel graduated from Hillel. 

“You could tell just the passion that he had for the students and for the game of basketball,” Schlussel said. “With some coaches you don’t always sense the love for their players, but with him, you could tell how much he loved to coach and you just got that sense from him that he truly cared for you a ton and wanted to help you grow—not only as a player but also as a person.” 

Coach Sanders with Hillel’s girls soccer team. Courtesy of Hillel Day School

Farmington Hills resident and Hillel teacher Marcie Goldstein remembers Sanders as a “kind, loving soul whose infectious smile could brighten anyone’s day.” Her two sons, Ben, 18, and Seth, 16, both had Sanders as a basketball coach while they were students at Hillel. 

“Sanders was more than a basketball coach. He was the guy who was always outside at lunch playing basketball with the kids, he was the guy you would talk sports with and was the guy you would always high-five when walking down the hallway,” Ben said. “We established relationships with him before he was even our basketball coach. He was a gentle giant, always had a smile on his face and was someone you looked forward to seeing.” 

Like everyone else, Goldstein knows that Sanders will be greatly missed throughout the entire Hillel community. His presence at the school inspired not only his students and players, but anyone who walked into the building. 

“His advice and encouragement always came from his heart. His goal was always to see that the kids worked hard to be the best that they could be,” Goldstein said. “He truly touched the lives of so many kids.” 

Hillel Day School Memorializes Coach Tony Sanders

Hillel is hosting an online memorial for Sanders that will be accessible to the public.

On Sunday, April 19 at 2 p.m., members of the community can use this link to participate in Coach Tony’s celebration of life memorial on Zoom.

Hillel has also set up a fund – Sanders Family Support Fund – to support Coach Sanders’ family during this difficult time. Hillel will collect and distribute the funds to his family.

Members of the community can also donate to the Coach Tony Scholarship Fund at Hillel, which will honor Coach Tony’s passion and love for Hillel Day School.

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