Bailey has always been a winner

The following story was published by David Potchak in 2005. It is being republished in recognition of Don Bailey’s retirement as head football coach at Forest Hills.

In the midst of the boney piles, coal dust and mine sulfur drainage, the town of St. Michael is neatly tucked away as part of Cambria County.

Back in the day, the town was noted for its Catholic church, elementary school, its blue-collar workers, its cultural heritage, and without a doubt, for its football players.

Coach Sam Plummer and an ethnic mix of players’ names such as Matsko, Slonac, Yochimowitz, DiMuzio and Blanchetti have left many cleat prints in both the gridiron and in the memories of the folks residing in the legendary township.

Some went on as far as Michigan State and played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, while others left their mark only in the turf of the G.H. Miller Stadium in Sidman.

St. Michael and Adams Township are now part of the Forest Hills School District. Thus, the pathway to the “Friday Night Lights” was well lit long before Don Bailey and the present-day Rangers made their way to the forefront of area high school football.

If you reside in the Laurel Highlands and are not comatose, you are no doubt conscious of Bailey, his Rangers and their reputation. And I am sure you also know that Bailey was once the superintendent of schools in Forest Hills.

What you may find interesting, however, are some recollections of the past that made me aware of Bailey’s winning personality and leadership long ago.

Part of winning at anything is to find a competent leader. I first noticed Don “Beetle” Bailey and his leadership abilities at the ripe old age of 10.

I had recently joined the Adams Township Little League program and was a member of the Sidman Dodgers. Bailey was a catcher for the St. Michael Yankees. Our coach, Mike Matsko, managed all four teams, which included the Creslo Indians and the St. Michael Pirates, too.

It made little difference that one coach attempted to teach baseball skills to four different teams, as Bailey took over from his catcher position and ran the show for the Yankees. I might add: They won the league title during those years in which Beetle (age 11 at the time) was the catcher.

A few years later, Bailey was the workhorse running back for the Adams’ Blue Hornets Junior High football team. He was in the ninth grade and had been a starter for three years. I was a rookie quarterback and in grade eight.

While chatting with my buddies on the bench and not paying one iota of attention to the game situation, I failed to notice that the starting quarterback, Ray Danel, was injured and lying on the field.

A call for “Potchak” woke me up in a hurry. Our coach, Mr. Shirt, was calling me to go out into that huddle and finish the game.

Sick to my stomach and nervous, I looked at our coach with what must have been a shocked expression on my face.

“Get in there!” he yelled, but never gave me so much as one play to run.

The huddle was silent. My teammates, all older than I, had been coached well and knew that only the quarterback was allowed to speak. There was a problem, though: I could say nothing. I froze.

Bailey flipped out his mouthpiece. The site of his red face, black eye-paint and entire body dripping with sweat frightened me back to reality. I might add that Bailey was the same size then as he is today.

He was a full-grown man at age 14 and his arms possessed girth more fitting to my thighs.

“44 dive,” he grunted.

I repeated the play, broke the huddle and took the snap from the center. The play was a handoff to Bailey, and he promptly ran the ball hard for 15 yards.

As we re-grouped in the huddle, he took his mouthpiece out again, and said, “Good job.”

I felt like Joe Namath. Bailey’s meager communication to me spoke volumes. I was fine the rest of the game, and we beat Shade that day by three touchdowns.

That was the last year of existence for the Adams-Summerhill School District.

Bailey went on the next year to start in three sports for three years for Forest Hills. After setting rushing records for the Rangers, he then played football in college in Illinois, too.

The rest, as they say, is history.

To those of us who know Bailey, his many accomplishments were never a surprise. He was a natural leader in his youth and still is today. He inherited a blue-collar worth ethic, a drive to success and a never-say-die attitude.

His laurels today include a stint as the superintendent of schools at Forest Hills, and he’s a member of the Pennsylvania Football Coaches Hall of Fame.

Whether he’s coaching, running a school district, raising a family, or just being a pappy, he is a winner and always will be. And he is deserving of any accolade that he may receive.

(Potchak resides in New Enterprise.)