Bobby Brabender, who died Easter Sunday, left a strong impression on generations of Strong Vincent High School students.

It was the summer of 1980 when I first heard the stories about Bobby Brabender.

I was an incoming freshman at Strong Vincent High School and didn't know about the legendary coach and physical education teacher, who died Easter Sunday at the age of 90. A couple of my boys' baseball teammates told me what I could expect.

"He was a drill sergeant in the Army and he runs his gym classes just like boot camp."

"He makes his gym classes run around Frontier Park, even in the snow."

"If you forget your swimsuit, he makes you swim naked."

By the time school started, my imagination had turned Coach Brabender into a 500-pound ogre with a clipboard and a whistle. 

I quickly learned two things: My teammates' stories about Coach Brabender were (mostly) true, and he was not an ogre but one of the greatest characters I have ever met.

He was probably no taller than 5 feet 6 inches, but towered above the teenage boys who filled his gym classes. There was no back talk or wise cracking around Coach Brabender, even though I can't remember him ever yelling or shouting in real anger.

Coach Brabender wasn't politically correct. He had us count off in Japanese and would pull on his lower eyelid when talking about "Eye-talians."

One of his most famous gym class games was "Hi-Ho Silver." We would run in circles around the gym and when he called out, the person behind you would jump on your back and you had to keep running.

Somehow the heaviest senior would always end up riding on the scrawniest freshman.

Coach Brabender loved to tease his students. One day he came up to me in gym class and announced, in a voice loud enough to echo off the gym walls, that I looked a little like a Cabbage Patch Doll.

My face turned so red I looked like a stop sign. I had baseball teammates calling me Cabbage for the next several seasons.

But Coach Brabender praised me just as loudly in gym class after helping Vincent beat Cathedral Prep. On both occasions he spoke through a grin so wide you could see every tooth in his mouth.

I got to see Coach Brabender many times after graduation when I covered Erie City Council meetings for a local radio station. He always flashed that grin when he saw me.

I'm just glad he didn't call me Cabbage. 

Erie Times-News staff writers share personal stories. David Bruce can be reached at 870-1736. Send email to