Coach Gene Barber, by Roger Darnell

1976 St. Cloud Little League team coached by Guzie Whaley (back row, first on left) and Gene Barber (back row, first on right). Middle row, first on left – Scott Darnell. Third row, kneeling… second from right – author Roger Darnell.

“Youth sports could not exist without millions of volunteers and modestly paid coaches who teach our children how to skate and catch and dribble and also how to get along with others.” – Acclaimed non-fiction author and New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey.

Like most people, I am a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. Still, after hearing him sing “Glory Days,” it’s easy to diminish the value of recalling bygone days of youth, where acts and achievements can grow richer with each passing decade. Since man’s earliest days, the impulse to revisit the past has provided an essential means of preserving history and keeping it alive. This site is dedicated to glory days, in general… and more specifically, to the sports coaches behind the best of them.

As I sit down today to look back on Coach Gene Barber of St. Cloud, Florida, I find that my actual recollections are somewhat foggy. Still, I have very fond memories for Coach Barber and for the era of my life where he filled an important role. When we’re young, if we don’t have coaches, how many people would show up for practice, don a uniform or take the field in any type of organized way? For me between the ages of 10 and 12, I was part of the St. Cloud Little League team sponsored by Spinelli’s Restaurant. The first year, my brother Scott was the star pitcher and power slugger, and the head coach was Coach Cecil “Guzie” Whaley, with Coach Barber as an assistant.

Scott has always set himself apart in athletics and in life, and I guess I was so busy watching him succeed back then that my own confidence waned.

In subsequent years after Scott had moved on to the Babe Ruth League, Coach Barber led our squad himself, and we held our own, season to season. Many stories about legendary sports leaders involve teams having their backs to the wall and the Coach delivering some inspiring, adrenaline-inducing speech that turns the tide toward victory. The first thing I remember about my time under Coach Barber was that he was there and available to us, and he exuded a quiet confidence that fueled our team efforts. His son Doug was a team-mate we all looked up to as well. With each passing day, we grew as young men and as a team. I remember the Coach holding us to a high standard of behavior and sportsmanship. There was no swearing… and when anyone would have a disappointing outing, he would have a little time to vent his frustation. Coach Barber would just give them a steady look with the brightest of blue eyes, and emphathize.

Things happened for me that were good and bad during those years and seasons. Mom was always there in the bleachers with the other St. Cloud parents during my games. The fabric of community united us all – some tighter than others – around that ballfield. Our team battled the league competitors in their signature colors: Burchfield in orange; Rotary in blue; Bankers in maroon; VFW in black; Kiwanis in green; and Mercury Marine in yellow, if memory serves. On the ballfield, I eventually earned a promotion to the infield, and had a good run as shortstop. Behind the plate, I was +/- .250 consistently, but never spectacular… although once, I did manage to knock a home run.

And best of all, I can still distinctly remember turning a triple play almost single-handedly. With men on first and second base, the batter connected with a pitch that sent a looping line drive toward left field. I stepped back to the grass, jumped and snagged the ball from the air. Both base runners had run for the next base, making it easy for me to run to second base and tag it for out two, then throw to first baseman Billy Tyson, who tagged his bag for the third out. Running to the dugout, I remember a lot of oohs and aahs, and the steady gaze of the Coach with at least a slight flush of pride, and a broad grin. That moment was great, and so were some of the others experienced with that team… like having our team dinner at the award-winning restaurant that sponsored us, and having the team party at the Barbers’ house. Altogether, the experiences were priceless in making me feel confident on my own and as part of a team led by a man I respected very much.

Even during glory days, baseball is never solely about what’s happening on the field. In one of the weirder turns of events for yours truly, I was once tossed out of a game by a St. Cloud umpire who had a thing for my mom, where just a night or two before, I had been pivotal in Mom showing him the door. As I left the field in disgrace – thrown out for giving that corrupt umpire “a look” after he called an obvious “ball” a “strike” – I remember Coach Barber standing there defending me. And another shameful moment on the field also left a crater-sized scar. Standing there at the plate in the ninth inning, down by one or two runs with men in scoring position, I was called out, watching the pitch go by that was deemed strike three. That game-ending nightmare moment could not be blamed on a sexually frustrated umpire. The disappointment registered as tragedy, and the walk I chose to take instead of riding home with Mom was literally a trail of tears. I knew the Coach forgave me, but letting him and the team down was tough to swallow.

Years passed and I continued playing ball for coaches and teams in Florida and Illinois. Those days in St. Cloud’s Little League were a considerable trial, and I mostly felt that I had been mediocre. However, many years later at a bar in Orlando, I ran into a guy I had not seen since we both played for Coach Barber on Spinelli’s. Imagine my surprise as I heard my old friend Byron Stewart assuredly gush, “Man, you were the shit in baseball! You were amazing.” In that moment, Byron cast a new light on that bygone era in my life… making me realize that during the tenure of Gene Barber as my baseball coach, I went from a nervous bench-rider to (at least in one person’s eyes) something of a contender.

“Thank you Coach!”

Coach Tony Gannarelli, by Roger Darnell

1978 St. Cloud football team coached by Tony Gannarelli and friends. Back row, #11 – author Roger Darnell.

For me, in the early going of my life, I was very much aware of two facts: I had an older brother, and he was better than me in virtually every way. In our hometown of Greenville, Illinois, by the time I was about 12 and Scott was about 15, our great Aunt Lola summed us up like so: “Roger, you’re a cry-baby, and Scott, you’re a bully.” By those ages, we both had been moved around a lot, and our parents had divorced, which gave us both some opportunities to explore life in some unique ways. That is to say, on our own, we were able to apply our own spins to the channels and activities available to us, which broke down to school, sports and home life.

In school, Scott held his own very well and was extremely popular, and in home life, we always had a lot of fun, even if Aunt Lola’s description often applied from my point-of-view. But when it came to sports, Scott’s abilities were truly extraordinary. This was evident from his unearthly talents on a diving board, to his dominant skills in baseball, basketball and football. At age 14 he played in a summer football league in St. Cloud, Florida, flourishing as the team’s quarterback… a role he sustained after moving back to Greenville for high school, adding kicker and punter to his roles, and ultimately earning the coveted “letters” in football, baseball and basketball from his sophomore years onward.

When Scott was emerging as a football star at age 14, I and my best friends Randy Johnson and Tim Sklarek were going out for our own football team, and luckily for us, the coaching staff included Mr. Anthony “Tony” Gannarelli, who also was the father of our good friend and classmate Gray. In those days we rode our bikes to and from school, and we also had to carry our football gear. We boys were determined to give it our best shot, and for my part, those first intensive experiences playing football prepared me for the coaches and teams I would go on to play for in Illinois, Tennessee and other parts of Florida.

By that age, I’d also played a lot of baseball, and in St. Cloud’s Little League community, Coach Gannarelli was the leader of the Kiwanis club, a perennial threat to the league championship. Whenever we played Kiwanis – which in that era had the coach’s other son Johnny playing catcher – we usually lost. Coach Gannarelli’s presence was large and fierce when you played his team… so having him as our football coach was daunting and exhilarating.

For our football squad, the coaching staff also included Dennis Knapp, among others. These coaches worked us hard in the dirt and grass of the open lot next to the Boys Club in downtown St. Cloud. Dog tired and dragging, we were sure to hear Coach Gannarelli’s insistent “Chop chop gentleman!” pressing us to move faster. His passion and his enthusiasm were never in question, as each day he demonstrated to us exactly what commitment and all-out effort looked like.

It’s worth noting that the Gannarelli name is famous in St. Cloud for people of all ages. Its high school football stadium is named in honor of Tom Gannarelli. I believe Tom – who coached the Bulldogs for 25 years, leading his team to four undefeated runs and numerous winning seasons, including several conference championships – was either Tony’s uncle or a cousin. No doubt, Tom cast a large shadow in the area, and since his influence was felt throughout the community, I’m sure it was especially keen for everyone bearing his name.

With all of this in mind, many aging men who grew up in St. Cloud have been coached by a Gannarelli, but when I refer to the Coach,  I mean Tony. And this hard-driven, passionate and sometimes hot-tempered man saw something in me. My number in the above photo is 11, and in his mind, he seemed to think that like my brother, I had the makings of a quarterback. He watched me practice and give it my all day after day, and whatever he saw did not dissuade him from that vision. As I recall, I played some defensive secondary, but I also had quite a few chances to carry the ball. Coach Gannarelli also drew up a special play with me as QB. Meant for short yardage, I was to take the snap, drop back about two steps and throw the ball toward the 10 o’clock position. I remember practicing it and it not going that well, but Coach had a vision, and I was his soldier.

All I can remember about that team’s actual schedule was one game that we suited up to play in at the Osceola County Cowboy Stadium, home to the Silver Spurs Rodeo and also the Osceola County Fair. That’s where the above photo was taken. And in that game, I remember playing on the kick-off and receiving teams. But also, right before half-time, Coach called me over and let me know it was time to run my play. Gulp.

I remember running out and calling the huddle, then moving up behind the center. My heart was in my throat and I could not remember ever being so nervous. The opposing team was essentially comprised of giants, who formed an impenetrable wall which not only obscured my vision, their defensive line seemed to represent the outer limit of the earth, beyond which life ceased to exist. In short, I called the snap and took my two steps back. At that point, all I could see was a tidal wave of our opponents’ colors, arms and helmets ready to crash over me. I got the ball away over the wave’s crest – that is the only sense of direction I had over that “hurl” which could never be described by anyone as a “pass.” Where did it land? I most certainly could never tell you, but happily, the whistle blew… it was incomplete, and the half was over. I picked myself up and ran back to the sideline, where most of the team had already run off the field, but Coach Gannarelli did await. “Good job Darnell, we gave it a shot. Let’s go – chop chop!”

Coach passed away in 2014 at age 74. I will never forget the faith he showed in me, nor what it felt like to be part of his team. “Thank you for taking an interest in me and making a difference in my life, Coach! May you rest in peace.”