Don Barrick was a tough act to follow.
If you knew Don, you’ll understand that statement.
If you never had the privilege to know Don Barrick, your life is a little less rich that those of us who did.
Don died Sunday in a hospital in Cleveland.
He had struggled with health issues the past few years. But on the few occasions I got to see him — he visited occasionally with my parents and I usually received an invite, too — you would never know he was ailing.
The outpouring of grief and memories and well-wishes and condolences speaks to the kind of love and respect the people who knew or played for Don had for him.
He was my football coach in high school … through my junior hear, when he and his best friend Bob Miller left Galion for Arizona, where they coached and taught and made men out of a lot of kids at the Orme School.
Where they became two of the most successful and respected football coaches in Arizona prep history.
Coach Barrick loved football.
But mostly he loved people … and those who played for him.
Miller was the head football coach at Galion High School. Barrick coached linemen. They also were my track coaches through my junior years Barrick coached the weight and field events, Miller the runners.
Because they were friends with my parents — my dad also is a former football coach — I was lucky enough to get to know them better than some players.
I’d run into those two coaches several times since they left Galion.
I visited with Miller three or four times since then. Barrick I saw maybe 10 times. And I cherish each and every one of those meetings.
A side note. Bob Miller played college football at Wake Forest, his roommate one year was Brian Piccolo. Yes, that Brian Piccolo, who was played by James Caan in one of my favorite movies of all time, “Brian’s Song.”
I didn’t learn about the Miller-Piccolo connection for several years after Miller and Barrick moved to Arizona. But even before that, I cried each time I watched that heart-breaking true story.
If you don’t know the Brian Piccolo story, look it up. But get some Kleenex handy before it starts.
I don’t know for certain, but I would bet even Coach Barrick cried at the end of that movie.
Deep down, he was like that. On the surface he was kind of gruff.
His gruffness was part of his shtick.
It was just an act.
Almost every picture I’ve seen of Coach Barrick includes a grin on his face.
I have lots of memories of Coach Barrick, which is what I always called him, until about 1990 when he visited my parents and told me to just call him Don.
I first met him and Miller when I was maybe 8-years-0ld.
On Sunday afternoons during the season, Galion’s football coaches would meet at a house on the corner of Grove Avenue and Clymer Street. I’m not sure if it was Barrick’s house or Miller’s home. They may have been there to go over game films or make plans for the next week’s games.
What I remember is sandwiches and chips and dip and pop and Ohio State football.
This was before the Big Ten Network, before Continental Cablevision, before college college football packages on Direct TV. At the time, it was rare that an Ohio State football game was ever on TV live. The replay was Sunday, on whatever OSU channel you picked up with your TV antenna.
I watched a lot of those games with a lot of my future high school football coaches, and I loved it.
By the time I was in high school, Coach Barrick was pretty familiar with me.
I also was a pretty good sprinter in middle school, and Coach Barrick taught health and phys-ed.
One day during gym class, we all walked down to the football field to do some time trials for class. Barrick had seen me run before, and wanted to see how good I was. So he pitted me against Joe Kokiko in a 60-yard dash.
Kokiko was two, maybe three classes ahead of me. He also was a sprinter and hurdler. He was was built like a … well, a lot better than I. Joe was taller and bigger and stronger and and more handsome than I. To me, he looked like he was about 30 years old and if you knew Joe back then, he was pretty intimidating.
So we raced, and I lost.
But just barely.
Coach Barrick didn’t say a word to me. But he gave Joe Kokiko all kinds of grief.
Coach Barrick was great at needling people. He didn’t even have to think about it. It came naturally with him.
But his needling was his way of motivating you.
He was also pretty darn good at that.
Joe already was — and continued to be — one of Galion’s greatest hurdlers.
Plus, he was a pretty nice guy, which is why he got away with a pretty good prank one day.
I think it was the next year. I was a sophomore. It was at the end of track practice and Kokiko and Randy Staar, who also was a hurdler, or pole vaulter — or maybe both … or neither — had been giving Coach Barrick grief during practice that day. To this day, I’m not sure how it happened, but when I got in the lockerroom after practice that day, Coach Barrick was stock inside a locker.
And as I entered, Big Joe and Little Randy flew past me. They were running for their lives.
Coach Barrick was mad.
But as he swore and threw his ball cap and chased after his captors, he also was smiling.
Coach Barrick had a wonderful sense of humor.
But his greatest gift may have been his ability to motivate others.
And sometimes he needed help. He needed a tool.
One day during my sophomore football season, I was that tool.
I was running a scout offense against the first-team varsity defense.
I was supposed to get the ball and run off tackle, which was a play that week’s opponent was known to run. For whatever reason, I had a lot of success on that play. Four or five times in a row I took the handoff and made it through a defensive line that included Jon Bradford at defensive end, Mike Mansperger at defensive tackle and Jeff Dawson at linebacker.
Those were three very good football players. All bigger, uglier, dirtier, smellier, sweatier and meaner than I.
And each time I managed to get through the line without them tackling me, Coach Barrick got more angry.
Finally he grabbed the face mask of two of those guys. If he could have grabbed all three he would have. In language I cannot repeat in the paper, he told them that “Kent was going to get the ball and run right here, right between you three, and if you don’t knock him into next week when he gets there, you’re going to be running for a week.”
I don’t know who Barrick was trying to motivate: me or those three slobbering, salivating Tiger defenders.
But I knew I was going to get whupped on that next play.
And I did.
But right before I took that next handoff, I’m pretty certain, Barrick winked at me.
An advance apology for the blessing (I mean pain) I was about to receive?.
I’ll never know.
He winked, I took the handoff and Mansperger, Dawson and Bradford creamed me. They buried me on that play and got back in the good graces of Coach Barrick.
Barrick was thrilled.
I was a heap of busted and twisted flesh beneath about 700 pounds of drooling, angry defenders.
They earned kudos.
My reward showed up the next morning in the form of two of the most colorful bruises I had ever seen.
I don’t remember much else of that practice, but I’m pretty certain I earned Coach Barrick’s respect that day.
And that’s what mattered most to me.