Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Another chapter to whet your appetite

Note: Here's another chapter, another of the stories that made our class special.



KEEP ME IN YOUR HEART


Tony Barile lost teammates, friends and a cousin in the 1970 Marshall University football tragedy that he avoided because of an injury -- and a trip to Woodstock.

If you want a perfect example of that old saying about the size of the fight in the dog mattering more than the size of the dog in the fight, look at Tony Barile.


He was only 5-foot-8 and 158 pounds, but he lettered in four sports at Woodson. He was a standout running back for the school’s first winning football team, and he was the starting point guard for a basketball team that went all the way to the state quarterfinals his junior year.

He also played third base for the baseball team as a sophomore and ran the 440 and the mile relay in track as a senior.

"My size never really bothered me until I got to college," Barile said. "I was the same size from junior high on, and the first time anybody ever referred to it was when I was a junior on the basketball team."

Walter Hawkins, a transfer who played center on that team, called Barile "Midget Pizza."

Midget or otherwise, Barile could play. In what turned out to be the last game of the season, at state against top-seeded Patrick Henry High of Danville, he sparked the Cavaliers to a halftime lead that disappeared in the third quarter when Coach Paul "Red" Jenkins sat Barile down for too long.

He could play.

Of course, when colleges came looking for recruits, 5-8 and 158 spoke a lot louder. Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, offered him a full scholarship to play football. He accepted, never realizing he would become part of one of the most tragic stories in the history of American sports.

By now most people know the story. On November 14, 1970, after losing a close game to East Carolina University, players, coaches and fans of Marshall’s football team boarded a DC-9 with a crew of five for the return flight from Kinston, N.C., to Huntington.

It was only supposed to be a 52-minute flight, and players and friends who hadn’t made the trip had beer on ice waiting for their friends to return.

The flight never landed. The crew scrubbed the landing and began an effort to go around and try again, but the plane crashed to the west of the airport, killing all 75 people aboard. It was the worst air disaster in American sports history.

Barile, a senior reserve on the team, hadn’t made the trip. Two weeks before the game, a teammate had speared him in practice and lacerated one of his kidneys. He spent three days in the hospital, his kidney packed in ice as doctors waited to see if they would have to remove it.

He was fortunate that he didn’t lose the kidney, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to play anymore for the rest of the season. He started letting his beard grow, and when he was eating dinner at the training table, the head coach came up and confronted him.

"He told me to cut my beard, that I was still a representative of the team," Barile said. "I told him I knew my football career was over and I wasn’t cutting it. There was total silence at the table. The coach looked at me like he wanted to punch me and then he turned and walked away."

Five years earlier, that might never have happened. Barile grew up in an era when if the coach said jump, the only question the athlete ever asked was "How high?" But college sports – particularly football – had gotten really nasty at many schools in the 1960s. Books like Gary Shaw’s "Meat on the Hoof" and Dave Meggysey’s "Out of Their League," published in 1970 and 1971, exposed how players were treated in college and professional football.

Marshall wasn’t much different. In fact, during Barile’s four years at the school, the Thundering Herd was put on probation for numerous violations and was also expelled from its conference. Prior to the 1969 season, the school fired the coach responsible for much of that and promoted Rick Tolley to head coach.

"He was a sadistic madman," Barile said. "He used to have an ambulance at all our practices because someone inevitably would get hurt. Sometimes we would finish practice and then he would make us start all over again."

It was family that had brought Barile to Huntington. He had an aunt living there, and her husband was a major university booster.

"I went there and I loved the campus," he said. "It wasn’t too big or too small. My cousin Frank Loria said he could have gotten me a scholarship to Virginia Tech, but he had been a two-time All-American there and I didn’t want to follow in his shadow."

Loria actually came to Marshall for Barile’s junior year as an assistant coach under Tolley.

"He was my size, but he was really tough and loved contact," Barile said. "He taught me that toughness, hard work, determination and heart went a long way."

After the training table confrontation, Loria talked to Barile privately.

"He told me if I cut the beard, to come see him on Friday and he would get me on the plane for the trip," Barile said. "I didn’t say anything. I just didn’t show up."

***

It wasn’t the way he had envisioned his football career ending, sitting in his dorm room on Saturday night with a couple of teammates who hadn’t made the trip either. The game was over and they were waiting for their friends to return when somebody came running into the room.

"He told us to turn on the television," Barile said. "There was a plane crash at the airport."

The first thing they heard was one of the news anchors saying they thought it was the Marshall plane. In the background, they heard someone say three words.

"They’re all dead."

Then the station went blank. To Barile, it seemed as if time had stopped.

"Everybody ran out of the room," he said. "I was just sitting there, not knowing what to do."

Most of the other people in the dorm went to the airport, but Barile knew there was no way he could go. It was beginning to sink in that not only his roommate and his teammates had been killed, but that his cousin had died in the crash as well.

He drove up to a park that overlooks Huntington. It was one of those dismal autumn nights when the rain that was falling was so fine it was like a mist creating halos around all the lights below. As he looked down, he could hear the sirens from all the police cars and fire trucks racing to the airport.

"I was devastated," he said. "I sat there in the rain for hours, and when I finally got back to the dorm, there was no one there. They had all gone to the airport. I left and went to my aunt’s house."

He returned to the dorm the next day to find pandemonium. Parents and family members of the players who had died, as well as players from previous years, were looking for the right rooms.

"Guys who had been my teammates would see me, grab and hug me and start crying," Barile said. "They didn’t know I hadn’t been on the trip and they were stunned to see me."

He found himself directing parents and friends to the rooms of the departed players, and many of those rooms had large football pictures on the walls. Memories of happier times. The toughest was when he showed one player’s fiancĂ©e his room.

"There was a big picture of him on the wall, along with other guys, hugging after a touchdown," he said. "The girl just collapsed into my arms. That same scene went on and on; I was the one who had to show everyone to the rooms."

When it was over – at least when he thought it was over – he returned to his own room. For the first time, he looked at the wall and his roommate’s face was looking down at him.

"He was a good-looking, 6-foot-5 receiver," Barile said. "I got him stoned for the first time in that room. I remember us sitting there and laughing so hard I thought we were going to throw up."

***

The next week was particularly brutal. Searchers spent six days trying to identify each of the bodies so that they could be properly buried. One of the ones they had trouble identifying was Loria, and members of Barile’s family asked him to go down there and see if he could help.

He told them he couldn’t do it.

"All those boys were my friends," he said. "Those bodies were charred like burned pieces of wood."

Searchers finally identified Loria from dental records. Six other victims never were satisfactorily identified, and a number of the coffins that were buried held only pieces of bodies.

It’s difficult for people who have never played competitive sports to understand the closeness that develops between members of a team. Especially for Marshall, which had gone through some terrible seasons and had started to improve significantly in 1970, one could have said that closeness was something akin to people who had survived some sort of disaster.

It was why Roger Childers, a linebacker who had suffered a head injury and undergone brain surgery, had decided to stay with the team as its student manager. Of course, his dedication put him on that plane.

Twenty-two members of the varsity team weren’t on the flight, either because of injuries or the fact that they weren’t on the traveling squad. One player just missed the flight.

They buried their teammates in a mass funeral at the basketball field house. Barile sat in the audience throughout the heart-breaking ceremony, looking at the basketball team standing behind the caskets as pall bearers.

"At the end of the ceremony I started to walk up to the front," he said. "I saw this one basketball player who was a good friend of mine. He was crying. For all I had gone through for six days, I didn’t cry or break down, but when I saw him, I broke down and started bawling."

***

Most people who know the Marshall story now probably learned it from the 2006 movie, "We Are Marshall," which starred Matthew McConaughey as the coach who rebuilt the program after the crash.

It was definitely inspirational, but it wasn’t the story of the team that died.

"My brother Joe wrote a screenplay," Barile said. "We talked about it before the other movie; it was more about the team that died in the crash and my own personal experience. I thought the movie they made was actually kind of sappy. If they would have incorporated more about the team that crashed, I think people would have had a greater sense of the real loss."

Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t make that kind of movie anymore. If it’s about sports, it has to be inspirational, even when it comes to changing the truth of what happened. That’s why all sorts of false drama was built into "Remember the Titans," despite the fact that the football team in the story didn’t actually play one close game all season.

And it’s why "We Are Marshall" had to be the story of how a university came together and came back from tragedy, instead of the story of all that was lost when the plane went down on November 14, 1970.

We look forward, though. We always look forward, and if anyone spends too much time musing about events that have already happened, we accuse them of living in the past.

***

After Barile finished up at Marshall the following spring, he married a girl from a small town on the other side of the Ohio River. He worked for her father in a small construction company and then managed a wine distributorship. The marriage didn’t last, and neither did two others.

Eventually, Barile moved back to Virginia and met his fourth wife Michele at the old State Theater. During our high school years, the State was a popular movie theater, but in this era of multiplexes, it has become a venue for live music. Acts like Little Feat, Gregg Allman and top local and regional talent have played there.

"The fourth time has been the charm for me," Barile said.

The two had a baby in the fall of 2008, and Barile is thrilled.

"I had a son in my first marriage," he said. "Miletus is in his thirties now, but I wasn’t around enough for him when he was a kid. My daughter Sofia has made my life much more rewarding. I have a lot of time to give her that I didn’t have for my son. Being older does have some benefits. You know where you are in life, and you’re better off financially and emotionally.

"I missed out on so much with my son, even though we are close now. He is a fine young man and I am very proud of him. Sofia will have my full attention and I am very excited about that."

He says he doesn’t think of those days at Marshall all that much anymore, although he has returned for an occasional game or presentation. When the Thundering Herd went 13-0 and won the Motor City Bowl, led by future National Football League stars Chad Pennington and Randy Moss, the school presented Barile with an engraved ring with his name on it, the same ring the players got.

They remembered him and honored him as a survivor of those worst days.

Another classmate – this one from Woodson’s Class of 1967 – remembered him too.

"I didn't realize that Tony was on the Marshall team," Diane Dunkley said. "I was at East Carolina in the fall of 1970, and the Marshall game was the first home game we'd won that year. There were celebrations all over town, and a lot of noise and excitement. As word came in and spread about what had happened, everything got very quiet, and the evening's celebrations ended.

"I was so glad to know that Tony wasn't on that plane."

***

Before all the marriages, before the plane crash that changed everything, there was Woodstock. "Three days of peace, love and music," the festival that grew from almost nothing into a crowd of 400,000 that shut down the New York Thruway and became the symbol of a generation.

It changed Barile’s life, and according to at least one of his friends in college, might have saved it.

"Woodstock set my life on a different course," Barile said. "I was a pretty straight-laced athlete before Woodstock."

Barile was home that summer when his younger brother Joe asked him to go with him. Their parents had told him he could only go if Tony went along.

"I love music, so it was a no-brainer for me," Barile said. “I told my brother I hoped there would be at least 50,000 people there. We left Virginia on Thursday night and drove all night to get there."

When they reached the area on Friday morning, they stopped for gas and asked for directions. The attendant pointed to a dirt road, and Barile saw a line of traffic heading in one direction. He got into line, and the traffic got slower and slower.

Eventually it stopped, and cars pulled onto the shoulder in an effort to move ahead. When the traffic on the shoulder stopped, cars moved to the other shoulder and eventually into the left lane. Four lanes of traffic moving slowly on a two-lane road.

"I remember music playing out of vans," he said. "Then people started abandoning their cars and walking. We walked for a while and the crowd got bigger and bigger. I was like walking down the streets of New York. Joe looked and me and asked me if I thought there were enough people for me."

They walked a few hundred yards more until they found an opening in the woods. Then they looked down into a bowl-shaped area and saw a massive stage, 50-foot speakers and spotlights at the top.

Everywhere they looked were tents and tepees.

"It looked like an Indian nation," Barile said. "We looked at each other and we knew this was going to be the most moving experience of our lives."

The music hadn’t started yet, so Barile and his brother got as close as possible to the front of the stage. Then, just after 5 p.m. on Friday, Richie Havens came on stage and started singing "High Flyin’ Bird."

Folks near the Bariles lit up a joint and started passing it. Eventually it made it to Tony.

"I looked at it," he said. "Then I looked around at everything and took a big hit. It was an amazing weekend – three days of love, peace and tranquility. It was like everyone was on a high the whole time and it changed me.

"I started growing my hair and my beard," he said. "Then it was time to return for fall football. I walked into training camp with long hair and a beard."

Of course the coaches didn’t like it, but Barile had changed. The kid who had never questioned a coach had realized there was more to life than football, and he wanted to experience all of it.

It probably did save his life. In 1968, if a coach had told him to cut his hair, that he was still part of the team, Tony Barile would have rushed out and grabbed his razor. But in November 1970, with his lacerated kidney, he knew football was in his past and the coach was just another guy yelling at him.

He stayed home and lived.

"I was talking with my brother Casey about that after the crash," Barile said. "He told me going to Woodstock had saved my life."

***

All that was a long, long time ago, and the boy who said no to his coach is now a man looking ahead to 64.

He still has dreams from time to time, one in particular.

"I dream that I’m in the locker room," he said. "I dream that I’m trying to get my equipment together. My teammates tell me that I’ve got to hurry, that the bus is getting ready to leave for the airport. I’m looking around for my stuff but I can’t find it.

"I’m getting desperate, because I know I’m running out of time. Then the bus leaves without me."

3 comments:

Mary said...

I was looking at a friend's profile and clicked idly on the Jackson Browne link. JB's been one of my favorite singers since the early seventies. I clicked on one profile, then a second, and got yours. Clicked on the Woodson blog wondering if it was the Fairfax County Woodson by some slight chance. Small world! I graduated from Madison in 1965. Many of my junior high friends ended up at Woodson.

Great idea for a blog!

Anonymous said...

You left out the part about Tony and his brothers running a marijuana operation from an apple farm in West Virginia.

Jill Hughes said...

Tony, Thanks so much for sharing your story and getting the facts straight for every one. I was a senior at Woodson in 1970 and remembering hearing the terrible news! I remember being so happy to find out you were not on the plane, and celebrating at the Oliverio house!! So great to see you and meet your sweet wife and Sophia in recent years!Isn't life sweet ~ you must be especially grateful for every day! XO ~ Jill