By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Many people in the Western New York sports media have stopped what they were doing to pay tribute to Dick Gallagher, the local guru of high school football (among other accomplishments) for the past 40 years who died on Tuesday.
OK, my turn.
In the summer of 2015, I was told by Buffalo News management that I would be taken off work in the office in order to cover high school sports. I did not consider this a promotion – and not just because it was something of a cut in pay (reporters earn less than editors).
Jumping into a new area of reporting is quite a challenge, and that’s particularly true for high school sports locally. It requires a lot of youthful enthusiasm, which I wasn’t sure I had at that point. We have about 120 high schools scattered across seven counties. They all have a bunch of teams over the course of a school year, and every team has its relatives and fans who think their favorites deserve much more coverage (because, you know, the kids work so hard). It’s an impossible task to do it completely, and very difficult to do it well.
When you are thrown into the pool like that to see if you can swim, the good news is that people float by with the occasional life preserver. One of the first people to do that for me was Gallagher.
Help has arrived
I had heard about Dick, of course, but I’m not sure if I had actually met him before the fall of 2015. I knew that he had put together a weekly newspaper for almost three decades on local high school football. I found out that he also was executive director of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services and Kids Escaping Drugs before retiring. That’s a lot of work to make the community better without adequate financial compensation. But he did it with a smile on his face.
The first order of business to cover the high school sports year is to write up some sort of preseason football preview. Miguel Rodriguez and I set up a meeting with Dick, and he came with a notebook filled with good stuff. Dick had sent preseason forms to all of the coaches in Western New York, and they had responded. The job of writing team previews suddenly became less overwhelming. Dick even gave me a tip on trying to rank teams – look at the number of returning starters. That, he said, was a good barometer of success for the coming season. Dick was right – he made me look like a genius over the next couple of years.
Later in the year, it was time to come up with an all-Western New York team for The News. That meant it was time to bring Dick into the office again. He had seen many of the top players, and knew about all of them. The information he provided was invaluable. There’s no perfect way to pick a team like that, but after listening to the conversation (I rarely covered games in person in the regular season) I felt confident that Miguel and Dick would come up with a good list. I think that belief was correct.
Then it was on to the yearly banquet, which could have been called Dick’s Annual Miracle. Each year he would stuff seemingly every good player in Western New York into a banquet hall. And they all received an award from somewhere for their efforts. I can’t imagine the logistics that had to be overcome for all of that, contacting players and coaches from all over, collecting money, making sure the awards would be there, and so forth. I hope the players remember that day fondly – I do, and all I did was show up, make small talk, and eat lunch.
I retired from The News in the summer of 2017, but I continued to pop up to cover some high school football playoff games on a freelance basis. That meant I got to see Dick at New Era Field. He always seemed genuinely pleased to see me, and I knew I’d have a pleasant, upbeat conversation with him.
We’d talk about Syracuse University sports; we had that in common on our resumes. He’d also answer my relatively serious questions about the high school sports scene with good humor. That was important, because I avoided the usual “Can Team A beat Team B?” areas of discussion. I wanted to learn about the issues involved in high school football, and how things got to be the way they were. A lot of enthusiasts tend to be “gee whiz” about that subject, but Dick always was realistic even though he loved the game. He’d give me the straight scoop on how certain policies evolved, and what certain people in the administrative part of the sport were like. Dick knew everything and everybody. Reporters love people like that, as you can imagine.
Dick had been battling some illnesses for some time, but he always fought them with a good attitude. No one was surprised that he was a tough cookie in such areas. Still, his friends knew a while ago that a day like Tuesday would come in the not-so-distant future, and sure enough it did.
I’m glad I got to know Dick in these past few years. He made quite a difference in the lives of many in two completely separate areas. People like that help turn a region into a community, and we were better for his presence. That’s a perfect legacy for someone who cared so much.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)