For the second time in less than a month, I find myself tapping into a story written during Covid as a tribute to another lost warrior, once again from the Sudbury football community.
Just weeks after the passing of long-time Sudbury Spartan Kevin White comes the news of the loss of Chris Bartolucci. A mainstay with the Cardinals high-school coaching staff for decades, Bartolucci was also among the founding members of the Joe MacDonald Youth Football League.
The following is a story that first appeared in February 2021.
There may not be a name more synonymous with St Charles College football than that of Chris Bartolucci.
Certainly it’s true that the likes of Father Francis Black, Mike Fabiilli and Dino Del Ben are equally revered in these parts. But with no less than 14 SDSSAA championship banners to his credit, the youngest of the west end Bartolucci quartet takes a backseat to very few when it comes to a legacy in Cardinals’ gridiron lore.
It now seems somewhat incomprehensible that if not for a bit of fate, this might not all have come to be.
A life-long interest in football was pretty much a given, from a very early age, for Bartolucci.
The future connection to St Charles College? Well, far more of a right place, right time thing - and, right girlfriend (now long-time wife, Patti).
“My dad had a construction company, so the original plan was to go to Sault College, get my construction diploma, work for him and eventually take over the business,” Bartolucci explained recently. But having an interest in post-secondary studies was to the sports minded teen as a passing attack was to SCC at the time - which is to say, hardly a marriage made in heaven.
A quick life lesson, courtesy of his father, on what the alternative to not pursuing his studies would lead Bartolucci to follow in the steps of his future wife, heading to Teachers College at Nipissing University and being offered a job at his alma mater before he had even graduated his program.
Though he would teach no less than six religion courses right out of the gate at the former Pine Street home of the Cards, Bartolucci was now in an environment that would draw upon so many wonderful memories of his youth.
“We were regular west end kids,” he suggested. “We played hockey down at the playground, we played baseball at the playground. The neighbourhood was so full of kids that you couldn’t help but to be a sports fan. It didn’t take much to get a baseball game going or a hockey game going. They were maybe one and a half phone calls away.”
It was an era where Byng playground would mirror the experience that could be found right across the city, especially for Bartolucci. “We were at the top of the Byng Street hill, and if we got a little ice on the street, I could skate right down to the playground. My mother would stand on the porch and yell at me to come home - that’s how close we were.”
And while there was many a physical activity that would pique the interest of the future Sudbury Sports Hall of Famer, there was something magical when the smell of football was in the air. “When I saw the lights go on (at Byng Playground) and the Hardrocks (eventually became the Sudbury Spartans) would be there to practice, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Bartolucci.
“I would just sit there and watch those guys. They were big, and with the lights on in the fall, well, that was unheard of until hockey got started.”
By the time he hit high-school, the walk to St Charles College for Bartolucci and the kids from the neighbourhood (some would continue on, making their way down to Sudbury Secondary) would only heighten the anticipation of the participation in sports that would await them.
While he also competed in wrestling and track and field, there was little doubt that Bartolucci’s first love was football. Heart-broken at missing tryouts in grade nine, the defensive back to be was nothing if not committed. “My brother (Rick) was teaching at St Alphonso and coaching flag football,” Chris recalled.
“He brought me home an old leather tackling bag. He would hold it up at the top of the hill in our backyard and I would run up and tackle it - over and over and over again.”
When the door opened to coach at St Charles, almost from the moment that he returned in a teaching capacity, Bartolucci was not to be denied. “I had to make myself indispensable,” he laughed. “I tried to get my foot so deep in the door that they couldn’t afford to get rid of me.”
More than thirty years later, Bartolucci would ease his foot away from that door. He is a rare example of a teacher, any teacher, spending their entire career at one singular school. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, with football involvement part of the mix in each and every one of his years at St Charles.
“I just love the game,” he said. “I love the smell of the game, I loved what it could do for a kid, how it changed kids. You would have kids that people wrote off as bad seeds - but all they needed was a little direction.” Football, in so many cases, provided that structured environment with loads of guidance.
While Bartolucci can recall his starting point, working with the St Charles juniors, with just he and Dino Del Ben at the helm, he can also recall times where a plethora of coaches helped to share in the workload. Through the majority of his years, Mike Fabiilli was a constant at his side.
At various times, the likes of Val Buttazzoni, Brian Ceppetelli, Al Lekun, Herb Petras, Dave Lewis, Rob Zanatta, Mike Fox and countless others were part of the mix. “With Fabs (Fabiilli) on the defensive side of the ball, I got a little more creative, and a guy like Brian Ceppetelli had a naturally athletic mind,” said Bartolucci.
“Then bringing in Lekun - here’s a Vanier Cup champion and an offensive line guy. He was able to make a few changes and correct our thinking a little wee bit. Remember, I was brought up with a wishbone, power “I” run game. I was just doing what Father Black taught us - but it was working.”
“People never accused St Charles of having a good passing attack, but we had a good running game. It’s probably what brought us the most success, though we did end up having a few good little quarterbacks.”
If there is a special attachment that connects Bartolucci and Fabiilli, it can be traced back to when the latter was a star defensive stalwart for the former, just cutting his teeth in the coaching ranks. “That was an amazing group of athletes - Fabs, Perry Dellelce, Brian Cluff. But they were also so much fun to be around,” said Bartolucci.
“They could make you laugh, but they were also very athletic.”
He recalled the era of his own son (Jimmy), when he teamed with the likes of Alex Balloway and Ryan Felhabar and others who had graduated from the ranks of Joe MacDonald Youth Football League, leading to a stretch where the Cardinals captured the city title in five of six years from 1996 to 2001.
But the truth is, each and every season accounted for its own set of memories.
“I just love the interaction between players and coaches,” said Bartolucci. “They see a side of you that you couldn’t show in the classroom, and you saw a different side of them. There is something magical about coaching that is just a little different than teaching.”
Something magical that might not have come to be if not for a gentle nudge from Patti - girlfriend, wife and favourite teammate ever.