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EQUIPMENT MANAGER MASTERS MANY TASKS

John Craig is one of the most underappreciated members of the Buffalo Bandits staff and it doesn't bother him a bit.

After some of the physical problems he's had, satisfaction comes from inside. Knowledge of a job well done is more valuable than a thousand thank yous.

"This is my passion, it's the one thing that makes me smile," said Craig, a 45-year-old West Seneca resident who is finishing his eighth season as the team's equipment manager. "I don't ever want to give it up. But I want to be 100 percent when I'm doing it so I can do the best possible job."

As always, Craig will make sure all the sticks, gloves and uniforms are in tact when the Bandits (9-5) take the field in Calgary's Pengrowth Saddledome tonight (9:30, Radio 550 AM) against the defending National Lacrosse League champion Roughnecks (9-5) in a rematch of last year's title game. Don't expect the same intensity tonight. Although the Bandits need one more win in their final two games to secure a home playoff game, both teams have already sewn up postseason spots.

Like the concert circuit roadies immortalized by Jackson Browne in the song "The Load-Out," Craig is normally "the first to come and the last to leave" on game nights. His job isn't finished until that last piece of equipment is packed, long after the players head to the postgame party.

"To me he's the glue who keeps our team together," said goaltender Steve Dietrich, who's probably closest to Craig among the players. "He fixes helmets, he carries sticks. He does all the non-glory stuff that makes us go. He's like my right hand, much more valuable to me than any of my equipment."

Lately, the job has become tougher for Craig because of a series of seizures and migraine headaches, so severe they debilitate. He's blacked out three times this season. His doctors are trying to pinpoint the problem.

Three years ago Craig lost about 100 pounds and has since become hypoglycemic. He must be careful about eating six smaller high-protein meals a day. But that's nothing compared to his childhood.

Craig, who grew up in Kenmore, was born with a cleft palate, a small deviation which creates a nasal sound, impairing his speech. He's also dyslexic and wasn't diagnosed until the seventh grade. Both conditions brought out the cruelties of his grade school classmates.

"I'd get wedgies, I'd get beat up, called every name in the book," said Craig. "In school, they'd put me in three periods of gym class just so I could work my frustrations out physically. My mother told me I could either take it, walk away or run. Well, my brother and father taught me to fight instead and I got good at it. In school I'd go after the very biggest guy right away then everybody would leave me alone. I got 14 fighting suspensions in seventh grade (at Kenmore Middle School)."

Once Craig got help for his disabilities, he developed confidence, stopped fighting and started singing. He tried out for a musical during his senior year at Kenmore West and got the part. He's been involved with theatre ever since -- more than 60 shows -- in both singing and speaking roles, including at the Lancaster Opera House. The kid who was once hesitant to open his mouth performed a six-minute monologue in his latest role.

For years, he'd assumed, "I was just slow." But after a stint at Erie Community College, he compiled a 3.2 grade-point average at Brockport State and now holds four degrees, including a masters in occupational therapy from D'Youville. By day, he's a recreational and occupational therapist for the state of New York.

On weekends, he's become a fixture with area teams. He works for the Kitchener Kodiaks summer lacrosse team for which Dietrich plays, and at Tonawanda High School with the football team. He's worked for the Buffalo Destroyers arena football team, the Blizzard indoor soccer team and both the Wings and Stampede roller hockey teams.

He spends much of his rare free time helping his 15-year-old daughter Laura, who attends Immaculata, try to overcome motor perception difficulties.

"She's going through the same frustrations I did and I can relate to it," said Craig. "Doing this is with the teams is helping me put her through school. My goal is to see her succeed. I work for her."
e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com