Remembering the Legend

  • 04/05/2018
  • Terelle Jerricks

Ronnie Barber Sr. to get a spot on the San Pedro Sportswalk to the Waterfront

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

Ronnie Barber, one of the greatest football players in the history of San Pedro High, died Jan. 26, 2018, at the age of 72. He will be inducted into the San Pedro Sportswalk to the Waterfront on Oct. 8, 2018.

Barber graduated with the Class of 1963 after leading San Pedro to a  three-way tie for first place in the Marine League. But individually, Barber’s most-decorated season came as a junior, when he was honored as City Player of the Year by the Helms Athletic Foundation after scoring 72 points on 12 touchdowns in a single season.

As a single-wing tailback in Coach Bill Seixas’ offense — the team’s field general — Barber picked up 1,161 yards in total offense, gained 843 yards running and completed 50 percent of his passes for an additional 318 yards.

Barber’s two-year statistics show him accounting for 2,508 yards in total offense and 31 touchdowns. Of this total, 1,819 yards were gained rushing, averaging 179 yards per game in total offense and a six-yard average per down.  

In Coach Seixas’ offense, Barber’s position was that of tailback. San Pedro author and player on Barber’s team, Leonard Olguin recalled a particular play in the defining 1962 victory over Banning High in his book, The Upset.

Olguin described an offensive drive after intercepting a long ball from Banning:

“The band started to play while Ronnie was running the team. Our guys out there looked like a great matador with Barber holding the giant red cape! Barber was in total control. Three yards! Five yards! Six yards! Pedro, first down…”

Olguin described the next snap in which he faced a 6’5” 270 lb lineman to his 5’10”, 180 lbs.

“All I was thinking of was hitting the first red jersey I saw. I made my turn across the line scrimmage, and felt Barber’s hand on my back. There I saw the first red jersey, and it was No. 77, Jack O’Malley’s. Barber helped a little bit by pushing me into O’Malley… I gave him everything I had. It was like hitting a stone wall. But, O’Malley didn’t get Barber. I had made a good block for a great runner.”

Pedro wasn’t supposed to beat Banning that year. But they did.

Ronnie Barber II

Ronald Barber, known as Bid Ron by his contemporaries after his son, Ronnie Barber Jr. (also known as “Lil Ron”) was born, traveled cross country to San Pedro from Columbus, Georgia at the age of 13 in 1958.

When Barber arrived, he found he was often one of the tallest kids around. Lil Ron said that when his father got to San Pedro, he was bigger than almost everybody at 6 ft 1 and 200 lbs and was placed on the offensive line at the San Pedro Boys Club (the predecessor to the Los Angeles Harbor Boys and Girls Club). It should be noted that Barber in his senior year was listed as 6 ft 0 and 185 lbs and 5’11’ and 175 lbs in his junior year.

At the time, Phil Trani was the director of the Boys Club and the club fielded a youth football team that played other area youth teams.

“They gave him the ball once, it was all over. They made him a tailback,” Lil Ron said recounting the stories he’s heard his entire life about his father.

Big Ron never knew his dad and his mom abandoned him when he was five. As the story goes, she went out for milk one day and never returned. And Big Ron’s maternal grandmother was dead leaving his great-grandmother to raise him in Georgia until the age of 13, Lil Ron explained.

“She instilled in him how to wash his own clothes and cook for himself,” Lil Ron said of the only woman Big Ron knew as a parent. Big Ron’s mother, it was later learned, followed a military man to Philadelphia. Big Ron didn’t see his mom again until he was 13 when she also moved to San Bernardino, California.

“From what I know of my Dad, I think the discipline his great grandmother instilled in him and her raising him in the church… that Southern way… stuck with him,” Lil Ron said.

It was more likely Big Ron’s coaches played an even larger role in building up the man he became — coaches like Trani at the Boys’ Club, Coach Seixas  at San Pedro High School and Arizona State University’s Kush.

Trani and Seixas are likely the mentors who developed his leadership ability on the field and playing the game, as Leonard Olguin says the game ought to be played: a level of professionalism that shunned the kind of showboating that demeaned teammates and opponents alike.

Big Ron went to Arizona State on a scholarship and played for the legendary Kush, the most successful football coach in Arizona State University history. Kush was known as the most physically demanding coaches in the game during his tenure. His football practices in the Arizona desert are still talked about today.

One of his drills, which were designed to measure the amount of punishment a running back could take carrying the ball, consisted of having only a center, quarterback, and two running backs lineup on offense, with no other offensive lineman, and run running plays against the entire defense.

Kush’s most famous motivational tool was a steep hill he dubbed “Mount Kush” near the Sun Devils’ practice facility in the hot Arizona desert. If a player especially needed discipline in Kush’s opinion, that player would have to run up and down that hill numerous times.

Kush’s and a lot of other tactics football coaches would deploy to motivate, toughen up and instill discipline in their players seemed evident in Lil Ron’s perceptions of his father and his father’s child-rearing/coaching practices.

“He was very disciplined, very focused and very giving. He cared about people,” Lil Ron explained. “But I think the thing I admired most about him is that if he hurt your feelings, it’s because he told you the truth. You always knew where you stood with Big Ron. He was never going to sugar coat anything. Everybody liked Big Ron. He was a very honest man. Another thing that stood out for me is that he stand up for himself.”

Lil Ron described his father as not taking an active role in his child-rearing until he started playing football. When Lil Ron started showing aptitude at the quarterback position, Big Ron studied the position with almost fanatical obsession. He began instructing, conditioning and training Lil Ron into a high quality quarterback.

When Lil Ron  made it to high school, Big Ron pulled his son out of San Pedro High and enrolled him in Banning, believing it had a stronger program at the time than his alma mater.

If Lil Ron fumbled the ball in the game, he was made to run, switching the ball to either hand for five miles or more after the game.

Big Ron met Lil Ron’s mother, Victoria Auch, when he was at Arizona State University.

Most San Pedrans who’ve had a meal at the Pacific Diner probably would know her as Vicky the waitress and would have been served by her at some point in time or another over the past 40 years. What most wouldn’t know about her is that she was an Olympian who competed with and against some of the greats of her era.

Vicky competed in tennis and track and field. She competed in the Olympic trials for the 1960 Olympic games against the barrier-breaking Wilma Rudolph. She placed 10th in the shot put finals but didn’t qualify in the javelin or the discus. “At the time you were only allowed to compete in one qualifier,” Vicky said.

Vicky noted that Earlene Brown changed that in the 1964 Olympics.

“[Earlene Brown] she was member of the Tigerbells Roller Derby team. They called her the 747.”

When Vicky became pregnant with Lil Ron and Big Ron’s grades made it impossible for him to stay at Arizona State, Big Ron told her he was going home to San Pedro, and she went with him.

Big Ron’s last shot at the pros was when Coach Paul Brown from the Cincinnati Bengals called.

“My dad sat out for about three years, but he stayed in shape,” Lil Ron said. “Paul Brown from the Cincinnati Bengals called and asked my father to try out. They knew about his talent.”

Brown was an executive in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and National Football League (NFL). Brown co-founded and was the first coach for the Cleveland Browns, a team named after him. He even played a role in founding the Cincinnati Bengals. It should also be noted that Brown played a significant role in integrating the AAFC and the NFL.

Big Ron tried out as a wide receiver instead of a running back, his natural position. Lil Ron explained that his father was one of the last to be cut. Lil Ron said this was one of his father’s regrets in life.

Jersey No. 23

Big Ron’s San Pedro Pirate teammates, from Tony Rodich to Leonard Olguin, describe Barber as a great teammate, a great running back, a great leader, or maybe even a good friend. But the word that seems a better description of his relationships is “aloofness.”

Few would make the mistake of calling him a “hugger,” or a pal you could call up to share a laugh over a funny joke. He was like this with family and friends.

“He was very discipline oriented,” Lil Ron said. “He was tough… He just didn’t play. I was scared of him for the most part… He had a sort of ‘it’s my way or the highway,’ sort of attitude. I knew he loved me.”

Ronald Barber Sr. could have been inducted into the San Pedro Sportswalk to the Waterfront a long time ago.

“I remember when they wanted to induct him,” Lil Ron recounted. “He asked them, ‘What took you so long?’

At the time, Big Ron’s No. 23 jersey number was retired by the San Pedro High School Booster Club.

Big Ron believed racism was the reason he wasn’t honored sooner. Lil Ron recounted going to a San Pedro High School football game in 1995 and seeing that the jersey No. 23 was still being used. Lil Ron called the Daily Breeze and confirmed that the number was indeed retired and shared with him the news article confirming it. Coach Walsh, the coach of the Pirates at the time, said he didn’t know. Lil Ron believed the Boosters knew.

They took No. 23 off the field. Big Ron considered filing a lawsuit over the matter, but never went through with it.

Ronald Barber III played in 2003 and 2004 as a running back. The No. 23 jersey was taken out of retirement for him. “Which is only right,” Lil Ron said. “He was supposed to have it.”

Olguin, familiar with the controversy, said the misunderstanding was resolved at Coach Seixas’ funeral in 2013.

“Ronnie Sr. had a bitter taste in his mouth, a chip on his shoulder because they retired his number. He believed Coach Walsh had something to do with it but he didn’t.”

Ronnie Sr.’s my-way-or-the-highway outlook had its consequences. For a short time, it drove his son and his wife away.

“When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to go. When I went to UCLA, I stayed in the dorms but he made me drive home every single day, just to make sure I was doing my work.”

This level of discipline ultimately backfired.

“I started to get upset. It caused me to rebel.”

Not long after entering UCLA, Lil Ron found himself on academic probation.

“I went to stay with a friend in Ventura, but I never went back to school.”

Big Ron eventually tracked his son down and expressed regret and told him if he wanted to go to junior college or go to a different school, he had his blessing. That was when their relationship as father and son turned a corner.

In many respects, little came easily to Big Ron. The stories that form the basis of his legend make it seem that all the success was a foregone conclusion. But for Big Ron, the man, it was trial and error every step of the way.

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