It’s been 40 years since Pittston Area and Wyoming Area last played football on Thanksgiving and still I miss it. As a young sports writer I covered all 11 meetings of the cross-river rivals on Thanksgiving Day, including the first one in 1967, which was postponed by snow until Saturday.
I miss the football and I miss regularly interacting with Coach Bob Barbieri. I don’t see him often enough these days. Bob was the only Pittston Area coach during the 15 years I wrote local sports. He was my gym and health teacher during my junior and senior years of high school and three months later I was doing a pre-season interview with him for the local paper.
Though I was just 17 years old and his recent student, he wanted me to call him Bob, but I couldn’t do it. Since “Mr. Barbieri” was awkward given the circumstances, I settled on “Coach,” which worked for both of us. He eventually did become Bob, however.
Influenced by his high school mentor, the fiery Coach Elio Ghigiarelli of Old Forge, and a product of a time when football coaches were loud and demonstrative and struck fear into the hearts of their players, Coach Barbieri had a reputation of being a bear on the sidelines. But I never knew that Bob Barbieri. As a teacher and then as the friend he became, I only knew the intellectual Bob Barbieri. The philosophical Bob Barbieri. The kind, loving, gentle Bob Barbieri. The real Bob Barbieri, I always believed.
A few years ago, Bob told me a delightful story that underscores how he had been misunderstood.
Bob’s daughter-in-law is a nurse. She was caring for a patient one day when he noticed her name tag and said he had a high school football coach named Barbieri.
“That’s my father-in-law,” Nina Barbieri said.
The patient asked how Coach Barbieri was doing and Nina told him how he would stop over their house every evening after supper to visit with her little girl, Bob’s granddaughter, and take her out in the backyard and talk about the flowers and the butterflies. Then they’d watch the sunset together.
“Oh,” the patient said, “I must be thinking of a different Coach Barbieri.”
A friend of mine reminded me of that story recently as we talked about how this year’s Pittston Area football team is coached by “a different Coach Barbieri.” Bob’s son, Nick.
I don’t know Nick Barbieri well, but I do know him a long, long time. Back in the early ’70s, when he was about 2 or 3 years old, we put a blue Patriot jersey on him and snapped his photo along with a couple of other kids of coaches. It was the cover shot for a Sunday Dispatch publication called “The Goalpost.” We printed the photo in full color.
Those were the days. The Dispatch was owned by the Watson family and that made all the difference. Throughout history, newspapers were owned by families and that gave them the independence the forefathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. It’s not the same when editors have to answer to stockholders.
Sure, the Watsons wanted to make money, but they were more interested in serving their readers, in putting out a dynamic product. Never was that more evident than with The Goalpost, which came out the Sunday before the big Thanksgiving Day game. It never had more than about 10 percent advertising, which made it a money loser. But that didn’t matter. We’d run color on the cover and publish as many as 48 pages of photos and stories. The goal was to make it a collector’s item. Period. And we did.
We took individual photos of every senior, trying to get them to pose like NFL players on chewing gum cards. The best at this, by far, was Mickey Calabrese of Wyoming Area. We tossed him a football and he snapped into a pose that made the Heisman Trophy look pedestrian. The worst was Jimmy Cefalo. Yeah, that guy. The High School All American. He could barely balance on one foot with his other leg raised like he was running.
Little Nick Barbieri didn’t have to do any of that, of course. He just stood there looking adorable with his John John Kennedy haircut and that jersey down to his ankles.
Friends who have followed Pittston Area football closely this year, who have been at every game and nearly every practice, can’t say enough about Nick Barbieri’s coaching. They talk a lot about his “football IQ,” but even more about his style, his demeanor.
At one practice, a wise-cracking freshman player, a kid of some ability and promise, needed a dressing down and as Coach Barbieri strode toward him, everyone stopped to watch. And listen. The coach got right into the youngster’s face, but whatever he said was for the young man’s ears only. There was no yelling, no flailing of arms. The coach talked directly, that was evident. But he talked quietly and reservedly. And there was never another problem with that particular player.
A different Coach Barbieri?
It might seem so to the uniformed.
But if you ask me, this Coach Barbieri and the original one are one and the same.
Deep down inside. Where it matters.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.