|Barry Zimbler flanked by Mike Knecht, Jeff Corenblum, Alex DeCubas, Jeff Cutler and Julius Pratt.|
It was high school wrestling season in the early 1970s and a chartered bus carried the Miami Palmetto Panthers to a Saturday night dual match on the other side of the state.
Some place called Bradenton.
Coach Barry Zimbler's team was going to wrestle the Manatee Hurricanes at the Manatee Junior College gym.
One of the people on the bus was yours truly, then a 23-year-old sports editor for the South Dade News Leader, a small evening newspaper in Homestead.
What a ride it was covering those guys, a wonderful memory that was recently rekindled in their company once more 40 years later.
They were kids no more.
None of us were.
They were all gathered in a South Miami restaurant to present Zimbler with the inaugural John and Helen Vaughn Award on behalf of the Florida chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
It was a poignant occasion for another reason.
Zimbler was battling throat cancer.
"I'm going to beat this," he said softly, cradling the award at the podium.
His old wrestlers expected no less.
They were honoring the man who'd instilled a genuine never-give-up attitude in each of them.
Barry Zimbler wasn't just their coach, but a mentor and a father.
What a team of surrogate sons he had, too.
A commercial airline pilot.
A former Marine fighter pilot.
A corporate lawyer.
There was a black sheep there that night, too, a former drug smuggler who'd just gotten out of prison.
One of his former Palmetto teammates was a DEA agent.
They were all coach's kids again that evening, one filled with hugs and kisses and tears, too.
Zimbler coached just 11 years at Palmetto before moving onto a new school as an administrator.
But what a legacy.
Two state championship teams.
Numerous individual state champions.
Eight of them were there that night, kids who went onto wrestle at college programs like Appalachian State, Florida, Georgia, Northern Illinois and Ohio to name a few.
What meets they wrestled for Palmetto, especially the dual matches with Coral Park.
Like the 49-7 bludgeoning the Panthers gave the Rams in their own gym, scoring a series of thunderous pins that rocked the house.
I can still see Julius Pratt running across the mat, thrusting his index finger at the packed Coral Park stands before Zimbler and an assistant dragged him away lest there was a riot.
Ironically, Coral Park went on to win the 1973 state championship.
But then came 1974 and my favorite and final memory of Palmetto wrestling.
The state meet was back at Fort Lauderdale Stranahan High School.
As fate would have it, Palmetto trailed Coral Park again and needed a pin at heavyweight to win that coveted crown.
It was up to Alex DeCubas, a sophomore who normally wrestled 188 and was pitted against a big kid from Jacksonville Ribault.
The match went down to the final seconds in a packed gym.
The crowd was on its feet, roaring.
Incredibly, DeCubas pinned his opponent and ecstatic Palmetto fans rushed the floor, mobbing the young hero who held Zimbler in an emotional bear hug.
It still gives me goose bumps.
Forty years later they were all together again, Zimbler and his champions.
A beautiful night.
After the dinner ended they were taking more pictures, but it was getting late and I said my goodbyes.
I had a long drive ahead of me to get home.
Home to Bradenton.
P.S.: Doctors recently told Barry Zimbler his condition had improved so much he didn't need any more chemo or radiation. No surgery, either. He celebrated by enjoying his first steak in two months.