Now that it’s official and has been made public, I am able to say this is one of the finest things that has happened in my 52-year journalism career. I must say it is an honor well deserved and long overdue. And one for which I am deeply grateful.
If you think I am talking about my being chosen for the 2019 Media Award by the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame, you don’t know me. Yes, I am both touched and humbled that this esteemed group would choose to recognize my work. And, of course, I am filled with gratitude. But what has me most pleased is that at this year’s banquet on Aug. 11, Coach Bob Barbieri will be inducted. Few people have had a greater influence on my life than Coach Barbieri. And I did not play football.
I spent the first 15 years of my career writing sports. And while I worked with a number of outstanding coaches, my life during that decade and a half was entwined with Coach Barbieri’s.
I was a sophomore when Bob Barbieri arrived at Pittston High School as the new football coach. He was already a sports legend in his native Old Forge, but we soon learned he was much more than a coach. Mr. Barbieri took his teaching seriously, as we discovered in his gym and health classes. Some 55 years later, when working out, I still hear his voice telling me to concentrate on the body part I am working.
Coach Barbieri coached at Pittston High in the 1964 and ’65 seasons and then for the next 23 years at Pittston Area. His record speaks for itself. But how his former players feel about him speaks even more. They all say the same thing. His second goal was to make them football players, his first was to make them men.
My dear friend Martin Sowa, who played under Coach Barbieri at Pittston High and then on the very first Pittston Area team, loves to talk about the time the players showed up for practice just as the heavens opened up in a torrential downpour.
“Are we going to practice?” one of the guys asked Coach Barbieri.
“Why not?” he answered.
“Because it’s pouring,” the player said.
Barbieri looked out the window at the sheets of rain and shrugged. “Are they shooting bullets at us?” he asked.
He got no response.
“Then we practice,” he said.
A few years ago, Coach Barbieri, Martin and I went on a summer road trip to the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, New York. When it was time to leave, we walked out to discover a similar downpour. Our car was parked on the far side of the expansive lot. We hesitated in the cover of the doorway until Martin made eye contact with Coach Bob and asked, “Are they shooting bullets at us?”
And with that, we took off through the rain, a grinning Coach Barbieri leading the way.
As I said, I did not play football for Coach Barbieri, and it’s something I regret. I was all of 5’7 and 145 pounds as a senior. A year later, I had grown to 5’11, 180, but when I could have gone out for the team, I thought I was too small. I was wrong I now know, especially after talking with one of my classmates, the late Jimmy Norris, who quarterbacked the first Pittston Area team. No matter whether you were a starter or you sat on the bench, Jimmy said, Coach Barbieri was determined to make you a better person. I could have used that.
But as has been the case my entire life, the Good Lord smiled on me.
A month after I graduated high school I was offered the job of sports editor of the Sunday Dispatch and that began a deep, lasting relationship with Coach Barbieri. I covered his teams for the next 15 years. There were championships, and upsets, and All-Staters and an All-American, but the thing that stands out most were our pre-season interviews. Coach Barbieri always asked me to mention every single player out for the team, and he said something positive about each one. Many of them hardly played once the season began, but they all got to clip out Barbieri’s comment about them and paste it in a scrapbook.
Coach Barbieri and I grew close and stayed close long after I had stopped writing sports and he had stopped coaching. What I missed out on by not playing for him, was more than made up in our frequent conversations. I always felt fortunate that I got to know a Bob Barbieri the spectators at football games did not. I got to know Bob Barbieri the philosopher, Bob Barbieri the intellectual, Bob Barbieri the Christian gentleman.
Several years ago, I ran into him and he had a proposal.
“I have this little Miata sports car,” he said, “and I’d like to get in it some morning at 6 a.m., put the top down, head up to Route 6 outside of Clarks Summit and drive across the top of the state for six hours, and then turn around and drive back. Would you like to come?”
He did not have to ask twice.
We stopped for breakfast in Troy, took a detour in Wellsboro to visit the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, drove straight through the campus of Mansfield University, and were darn close to Erie when we hit the six-hour mark, so we stopped for a banana split (his idea) for lunch and headed for home.
The next summer we took the aforementioned trip to Corning. The following summer the three of us went to Cooperstown, New York, to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and take a boat ride on Otsego Lake on the historic Chief Uncas. The next year, we went to the Gettysburg battlefield.
I love Bob Barbieri. That’s the only word for it. And he keeps doing things to make me love him more. A few years ago, the Pittston Area Lettermen’s Club asked me to help with the wording of a plaque to be placed on the field house, which was being named in Coach’s honor. While doing so, Coach Barbieri shared with me a manila folder I am sure few have seen. It was filled with his own hand-written notes about his career, including a neatly printed list of every senior player from every team he coached. Student managers are included. There were 421 names. After many, Coach Barbieri penciled in the colleges they went to after high school. And after a handful, Coach Barbieri drew a small cross. These are his former players who have died. I keep picturing him opening the folder and lovingly placing those crosses. That act alone says everything about him.
The banquet is Sunday, Aug. 11, at Genetti’s in Wilkes-Barre. Tickets and program ads can be purchased by going to www.luzernecountysportshalloffame.com or by calling Carol Hurley at 570-824-7133.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.