Remembering A Friend, Greg Gontaryk

by Kevin Burton

   In the winter, when I rested on my beepball laurels, he was diving on hard gymnasium floors playing goalball, always competing.

   On game day he was always on task. Teammate, coach or mentor, he was always teaching.

   This is a guy who definitely knew the score.

   In the end only an aggressive cancer and doctor’s orders took him away from being an athlete. I wasn’t there, but I bet you anything he asked the doctor, “Are you sure? Are you sure I can’t play.”

   My team mate and friend Greg Gontaryk died Dec. 22, at age 70 in suburban Philadelphia. He died at home and at peace.

   And so for the group of blind athletes and others who knew him, whatever athletic and other events we have remaining will be like the 2021 beepball World Series; his influence will be with us, be he will not.

   Along with Rob Weigand, Greg was one of the main organizers of the USA Legends, a team of beepball players handpicked for talent, but also for good attitude and professionalism. 

   It was a team of older players from all over the United States. We met monthly by zoom with updates of various kinds.  

   Near the end of one such call, Greg told the group he wouldn’t be travelling to Columbus for a big team practice that had been planned. He seemed to be fighting back tears as he said that “My oncologist said ‘no way.’”

   This was the first most of us had heard about the need for an oncologist.  That was a shock to the senses, but over time I concluded if there is one thing I know about Greg, he will battle. Greg was intelligent, pragmatic and determined on the field and those qualities surely served him off the field as well.

   I played with Greg on the Columbus Vipers and the Pennsylvania Wolfpack.   

I remember in particular his smile after a hard-fought World Series game Columbus won over Cleveland. 

   As a player moonlighting from the Kansas All-Stars, I appeared in the first doubleheader the Wolfpack ever had, at Long Island.  The first game we won in a blowout. But the second game was tight and came down to me making the last defensive putout.

   I heard two things on that play. The ball was beeping but also bouncing, so I was on my knees instead of on my side to field the ball. I also heard Greg say one word, “Kevin” as for one of the few times the ball got past him.

   The ball hit me in the chest and fell there. I picked it up and we had our doubleheader sweep.  It was a sweet ride back to Philly.

    I can still hear his voice on that putout. It’s the kind of memory death can’t erase, at least until such time as God calls my name as he has Greg’s.

   I just learned that Greg erased me from the Columbus Vipers record book.  He was defensive MVP at the 2003 World Series for Columbus with 56 putouts.  I had 52 putouts in my only World Series MVP season, the year the series was in Oklahoma City.

   Greg played and coached a lot of goalball, an indoor sport for the blind that many beepballers play.  When beepball season was over I was resting, he was still competing.

   Since Greg’s death I have learned that he played darts, was a bowler and even the member of a crew team in college. 

   I knew Greg in an athletic context but he should be congratulated as a champion of living with blindness.  With him there was never a question of allowing blindness to stop him or even slow him down from achieving.  That quality is far from universal.

   Greg had a team in our USA Legends fantasy football league.  He named the team after his dog, “Archie Dog.”  Late in that season we learned that his cancer had returned. 

   It filled my heart with a silly but profound joy to see that in the next-to-last game of the season he was feeling well enough to manage his team, to change the lineup.

   If the USA Legends World Series is the last beepball I ever play, I am grateful to Greg for what he did to make that team happen.  If I somehow get back on the field, I plan to play at least one defensive inning wearing a glove as Greg did in his honor.

   The first thing he ever taught me was how to spell his last name. He was still teaching me even at the end, how to handle life’s great inevitability.

   My words don’t do him justice, but I hope you get some idea from this and from the other tributes that have been written, the high quality of the player and the man.

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