Bruce Baarendse has won more football games than any coach in the history of North College Hill High School.
An impressive feat, for sure, but one I’m pretty sure very few at the NCH gym Thursday night July 2 much cared about. They were there to support Bruce Baarendse, the teacher, the personality, the mentor, the influence, the man off the field.
“He’s done so much for us,” said Gayle Clyburn, former NCH coach and teacher who worked side by side with Baarendse for nearly 30 years as a physical education and health teacher.
“Now it’s our turn to do for him.”
Baarendse, NCH’s beloved longtime football coach and teacher, is in the hospital battling cancer.
I’ve written a lot – literally thousands – of stories during my 20 years of covering community sports in the Cincinnati area but none come close to meaning as much to me as this one. I graduated from North College Hill in 1996 and Coach Baarendse has long been one of the most important influences in my life.
Clyburn and NCH teacher Kristen Brown helped organize Thursday’s “Boosting Up Baarendse” pep rally as a surprise for Coach B, recording all of it in hopes that the video will be a welcome lift to him in the hospital.
“The response on this has been beyond phenomenal,” Clyburn said.
Baarendse isn’t simply a teacher at North College Hill. He is North College Hill.
If ever an event could take the measure of a man it was Thursday’s pep rally. Essentially, you saw four generations of an entire town – old, young, black, white, athlete, non-athlete, you name it – come together to show their love for Coach B.
Former classmates (Baarendse was a three-sport star at NCH, class of 1978), former players, current players, opposing coaches from around town, alumni from out of town, teachers, community leaders, everyone.
“I’ve always said that North College Hill is a special place,” Clyburn said. “People through all of this keep calling it ‘The North College Hill Family.’ There is such a community here, the people who have grown up here and come through.
“And it’s a testament to the teacher, the coach, the man that he is. The impact that he’s had on all of us.”
NCH alumni set up a GoFundMe last week for the Baarendse family. Within 24 hours they had collected more than $5,000. As of Thursday, it had topped $10,000 with more donations coming in at the pep rally through another alumni-driven Kiss Cancer Goodbye fundraiser. Other alumni designed and sold BruceStrong T-shirts.
As word of the pep rally spread during the last two weeks, I watched my Facebook feed fill with hundreds and hundreds of well wishes for Coach B from NCH students, along with anecdotes about how much he has meant to them.
I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.
Funny stories about his penchant for giving basically every student who has ever attended NCH a nickname. Ridiculous stories about his encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock and his legendary games of name-that-tune. Truly heartwarming stories about times when he has pulled students aside and helped them through a bad day. Literally, 25 years later and they can still remember what he said to them one Thursday morning, something that made all the difference in the world.
In some ways the pep rally feels like a bizarre role reversal because boosting everyone else’s spirits is exactly what Baarendse has done for all of us throughout his entire career.
I went to Mr. Baarendse as a skinny little 13-year old who loved sports but was too small to be any good at them and asked if maybe I could help keep stats for the football team. He didn’t just say yes; he gave me the keys to the kingdom. He put me in the press box during games, let me hang out in the coaches’ office watching scout tape, gave me the authority to call in stats and story ideas to the newspapers on weekends.
I even got a famed Baarendse nickname of my own: Stats – a name by which I’m still known among NCH friends to this day. Looking back, it was a nickname that probably didn’t do much for my high school dating life but that’s OK.
Coach B’s enthusiasm and encouragement gave me something far more important: an identity. Suddenly I wasn’t simply a skinny, nerdy high school student. I was a skinny, nerdy high school student with a career goal. I was going to be a sports writer. And off I went.
At another school, with another coach who didn’t have B’s constant positive attitude, I probably never discover my passion and talents. I owe it all to him.
And trust me, my story is not unique.
The NCH gym was full of people Thursday night who will tell you a variation on the same narrative.
“You see all the comments people have made,” Clyburn said.
“He is a loved man.”
Without a doubt.
Get well soon, Coach.
Ben Walpole is an Enquirer Media staff writer. Readers can email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.