Peter Odrobina’s achievements as a coach at John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga, impressive as they were, took a back seat Monday as friends, colleagues and former players remembered Odrobina as they had come to know him.
“Coach O” retired in 2005, after a lengthy career as a health and physical education teacher and coach of several sports, primarily in the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District. He died unexpectedly last November at age 62.
Monday’s event was billed as a memorial baseball game between the JFK Bears, which Odrobina coached to several milestones, and the East Aurora Blue Devils, coached by Steve Sokolski, his longtime friend and former colleague.
But first, Odrobina’s family was surprised with the dedication of JFK’s baseball field in his memory.
“It’s just an honor that Pete’s legacy can still be carried on,” his widow, Barbara, said afterward. “He touched so many lives.”
The ceremonies, which included remembrances and the presentation of small jars of soil from the field to his family, were organized, in large part, by Zach Smith, a 2005 graduate who played two seasons of baseball under Odrobina. Smith is now the junior varsity baseball coach at JFK.
“He was a free spirit,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “He wasn’t really hip on technology. He wasn’t really hip on fashion.”
“He had this enthusiasm that was just contagious for everything he did,” he said.
Monday evening, Smith spoke to the large crowd that gathered along the first and third baselines; Odrobina’s family stood on the pitcher’s mound.
“As you can see, Coach O had a powerful, everlasting effect,” said Smith, who first met Odrobina as a physical education student.
“Not only did he care about your success on the field, he cared about your success off the diamond,” he said.
“His accomplishments speak for themselves,” Smith continued. “His biggest success, perhaps, was the life lessons he taught his players.”
One of those lessons was to “battle like heck,” Smith said. Another was to take advantage of every opportunity, because you never know if it will be your last.
James Mazgajewski, who retired as superintendent of the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District last December, and Odrobina attended grammar school together. “We were friends ever since,” he said.
Mazgajewski confessed that he didn’t really know Odrobina’s record as a coach. It didn’t matter.
“Pete was a great human being, a great person” who cared about people, he said. “It was never about him.”
“I miss him terribly. He was one of the best people I have ever known,” he added. Another speaker likened Odrobina’s “free-spirit look,” with his long hair and tie-dyed shirts, to that of a California surfer.
“My father was very unique in his style,” agreed his son, Peter Jr., who’s known as P.J. “He liked to be different.”
Baseball games between the Bears and Blue Devils held special significance.
Sokolski and Odrobina had been friends since childhood. Sokolski served as best man at his wedding.
They coached together at JFK – Coach O with the varsity team and Sokolski with the junior varsity squad.
“These were big games because they were best friends,” Smith said. Even during the pursuit of victory, “there was a sense of respect between the two teams.”
In retirement, Odrobina served as a volunteer assistant coach with Sokolski in East Aurora.
Monday evening, Sokolski and members of the Blue Devils wore colorful tie-dyed T-shirts, imprinted with partial lyrics from Rod Stewart’s song, “Forever Young.”
It was Odrobina’s favorite, symbolic of how he lived:
“Whatever road you choose
I’m right behind you, win or lose