Where do I begin to talk about Bob Barbieri?

How about the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, New York?

After touring the museum, Marty Sowa and I huddled with Coach Barbieri outside the door and looked out at a torrential downpour and my car all the way across the parking lot.

I glanced at Marty and knew what he was thinking.

I did not play football for Coach Barbieri, but Marty did. I had heard a ton of Coach Barbieri stories through him and was well aware of the one that fit this occasion.

Marty often told of the day a player came up to the coach in what passed for a locker room in the basement of the old Garfield School and told him it was pouring rain outside.

“So?” the coach said.

“So, are we still having practice?” the player asked.

“Are they shooting bullets at us?” Barbieri asked right back.

“Well, no,” the player answered.

“Then we’re having practice,” Barbieri said.

Sure enough, that’s what was on Marty’s mind that day in Corning. “Coach,” he said through a sly grin, “are they shooting bullets at us?”

And with that, the three of us took off running through the rain, Coach Barbieri leading the way.

He was about 65 then and looked no different from the man who taught us health and phys-ed in high school and coached the football team.

Coach Barbieri died last Sunday and as sad as it was to read his obituary Tuesday morning, I had to smile when I saw his kids referred to him as an “educator and football coach.” Maria and Nick knew their dad well. He always saw himself as an educator first and a coach second. Or better put, as an educator even when coaching.

As I said, I did not play football in high school, but as a student in Mr. Barbieri’s classes, I was well aware he respected me, and everyone else, as much as he did his players. We all belonged to him.

Upon hearing of his death, former player Bob Licata said Coach Barbieri was, “The only person I worked to impress other than my mom and dad.”

This reminded me of a Coach Barbieri encounter I haven’t thought about in years. It was 1996 and I had been divorced for about a year. When my kids moved off to New Jersey, I had a lot of time on my hands. I chose to spend it at the gym.

Joe Curry invited me to speak to his journalism classes at Pittston Area and as I went looking for his room, I bumped into Coach Barbieri. I remember what I was wearing: khaki pants, a denim shirt and a Beatles Yellow Submarine tie. “Look at you,” the Coach said, eying me up and down, “you look like a drill sergeant.”

What he said wasn’t as important as who said it. Little did Coach Barbieri know how desperately I needed a boost at that point in my life. Or maybe he did.

Mike Martin, an All Scholastic receiver on Coach Barbieri’s undefeated 1967 team, after hearing of his death, emailed: “Maybe the sign of a great coach is when 500 guys fervently believe each was his favorite.” Probably more like thousands of guys … and girls. I didn’t play for him, but that’s how Coach Barbieri made me feel that day in the doorway of his classroom.

Because I landed a job as a sportswriter, I got to spend a lot of time with Coach Barbieri, including several day trips like the one to Corning after his coaching and my sports writing careers ended. I covered Coach Barbieri’s teams for nearly 15 years and what I remember most are the pre-season interviews when he insisted I mention every single player. “He’s a good kid,” he’d say, “but he might not play a lot. Let’s get his name in the paper now.”

Coach Barbieri never said an unkind word about an opposing coach, player or team. Just the opposite. He had tremendous respect for everyone involved in the sport.

I got to know a Bob Barbieri that those who thought he was nothing more than a fiery guy on the sidelines would find hard to believe. I got to know Bob Barbieri the intellectual, Bob Barbieri the philosopher, Bob Barbieri the kind, loving spirit.

This Bob Barbieri is best illustrated in a story he told me a few years ago and I wrote in this column a while back.

Bob’s daughter-in-law, Nina, is a nurse. She was caring for a patient one day when he noticed her name tag and said he once had a high school football coach named Barbieri.

“That’s my father-in-law,” Nina said.

When the patient asked how Coach Barbieri was doing, Nina told him Bob stopped at their house every evening after supper to visit with his little granddaughter Mia, and take her out in the backyard to 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.”

Right. Probably the one who would only cancel practice if they were “shooting bullets at us.”

Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.

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