Success never went to Galiffa's head

| Thursday, April 3, 2014, 1:01 a.m.

Editor's note: Wayne Stewart is an author who has written several pieces about local sports legends. The following is a tribute to the late Bernie Galiffa. His look back at past athletes will resume later this spring.

On Wednesday they laid Bernie Galiffa to rest, and with him went so many achievements and memories. As outstanding as he was athletically, he remained humble and affable to the end, a great friend to many and a wonderful family man.

The Wilmington, N.C., funeral home that handled Galiffa's services had an on-line web page that allowed people to share memories and send thoughts of condolences to the Galiffa family. People from as far away as Texas, Alaska and Arizona signed the on-line guest book, and many messages came from former and current Donora natives as well as from a good many West Virginians, including former Mountaineer teammates.

The messages were touching and sincere, extending sympathy to the Galiffa family, praising the quarterback's athleticism, and, most importantly, glowingly speaking of Galiffa as an outstanding man.

Donora High School teammates knew what a great player, leader and friend Galiffa was, and many Dragons such as David Hunter, Patrick Anderson and John J. Vukich expressed their warm thoughts and memories of Galiffa.

I was one year behind Bernie at Donora High, and I still remember the day my cousin Dave Jones, who was a football teammate of Bernie's, went with me to Legion Field where Bernie was practicing. I thought it would be fun to catch a pass from Bernie, to see what it was like being on the receiving end of a top-notch quarterback (Bernie would soon be named as the second team All-State QB).

Even though he was tired and about to go home, when my cousin asked him to throw a few balls my way, he readily agreed. I'm not sure if he took it easy on me or not, but I do know he threw a perfect spiral, one that was soft and easy for me to haul in.

Last year I interviewed Bernie for a story The Valley Independent ran and he was articulate, interesting, and as always, friendly. We discussed Donora High teachers, common friends, and major sporting events from his Dragon days.

Often he seemed like he'd rather talk about his teammates than himself. He said much of his quarterback success came from receivers such as Ken Griffey. “He's one of those guys who can make someone look good.” He also insisted on praising his offensive line, calling them “a good bunch of guys.”

However, I insisted on discussing some things about Bernie from so long ago.

For instance, he had several sorts of quickness drills he worked on. One featured a friend holding a dollar bill about an eighth of an inch above his index finger and thumb. The friend would, without warning, release the bill and Bernie's challenge was to try to pinch it between his two fingers before it slipped through them and fluttered away.

Sound simple? Try it. He did it every single time.

Another drill had him down on his right knee with a baseball in his right hand. He would drop the ball from a height of about six inches above his left knee. He would then circle his right hand around the rapidly falling baseball in a looping motion and catch it in mid-fall. None of the other kids could match this.

When I brought those drills up, he let out a self-deprecating chuckle and said that age had caught up to him, that he couldn't do such sleight of hand tricks any longer.

More than anything during our conversation, he delighted in reliving the great football and basketball seasons Donora enjoyed during his prime.

Back then, losing was virtually impossible for several of the Galiffa-led teams. The 1967-68 basketball season remained a perfect one until Donora got knocked off in the final game of the WPIAL tournament. Furthermore, the Dragons went undefeated in the 1967 football season with Bernie setting the pace as a senior.

Bernie beamed as he said of that season, “In our last four games no one scored on us, and we averaged over 47 points a game.”

He helped the Dragons establish 17 school records, including many individual ones such as throwing for 1,890 yards and 22 touchdowns. Exactly 25 percent of his completions resulted in touchdowns.

His one regret was, “We didn't make the playoffs, but we felt we had the best team going.”

As mentioned, the Dragons of 1967-68 excelled in basketball, doing so with what Bernie remembered as “The Iron Five,” the standout starters known for their stamina. He said that while the team was short, “We beat everybody,” winning because “We loved to run.” Bernie's long inbound “baseball passes” and his patented jumper from the corner also helped greatly.

On defense Bernie crashed the boards well for a short forward, and he had another clever trick he used to do when he didn't have time to get to a shooter to block or obstruct his shot. Bernie would run toward him, and instead of throwing up an arm, he would make a jabbing motion toward the player's midsection. Often that unexpected gesture was good enough to distract the player, causing him to launch a poor shot.

Bernie, a consummate teammate, was always thinking, looking for a way to win— and that came naturally to a guy who always considered teammates to be like family.

Sadly now, that member of a figurative family, and his even more important actual family, has left us. While we must say farewell to Bernie, we can find solace in the fact that he leaves us with so many cherished memories.

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