The Winning Ways of Don Bailey
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 Adams Township, Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Back in the day, the town was noted for its Catholic Church, 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 old 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 Forest Hills Rangers made their way to the forefront of high school football in the area.
If you reside in the Laurel Highlands and are not comatose, you are no doubt conscious of Coach Bailey, his Rangers and their reputation. And I am sure you also know that Coach Bailey is the Superintendent of Schools in the Forest Hills Area. What you may find interesting however, are some recollections of the past that made me aware of Don’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 ten.
I had recently joined the Adams Township Little League program and was a member of the Sidman Dodgers. Don 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 Don 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) caught behind the plate.
I recall one time when the Dodgers had runners on the corners and Coach Matsko was planning a double steal. Don called a time-out and went to the mound and gave some directions (commands) to the pitcher (Tom Chulick).
On the first pitch, the Dodger runner broke from first to second and Don came up, mask off, and fired, what looked like a bullet, towards the bag. The pitcher intercepted the pre-planned peg and threw the lead runner out as he took off for home. You guessed it - Don then threw the subsequent runner out as he tried to slide into second. Don’s laser shot, right on target, left us with our jaws dropped and our mouths wide open.
Not too shabby for an eleven year-old, huh? “This guy was really something," I thought to myself as we ran out to take our place on the field. After all, he not only made the double play, he planned it. It was destiny - He was already a winner and a leader in his early career. And he would only get better.
A few years later, Don 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 as nervous as a hummingbird sipping caffeine-laced coffee, 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.
Don, 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 Don was the same size then, as he is today. He was a full-grown man at age fourteen 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 about 15 yards.
As we re-grouped in the huddle, he took his mouthpiece out again, and said, “good job."
I felt like Joe Namath. Don’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. Don went on the next year to start in three sports for the Rangers of Forest Hills. After setting rushing records for the Rangers, he then played football in college too. The rest, as they say, is history.
To those of us who know Don, 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.
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.