He started tossing around the idea a few weeks ago while, fittingly enough, tossing around a football with his friends. Charlie Sobieraski was taking a break from a busy baseball season and enjoying an afternoon of R&R at a summer cottage when Dan Bronson called a huddle of a different sort.
Bronson happened to be the senior quarterback at Lockport High, and he happened to be the son of Lions coach Greg Bronson. Sobieraski and the younger Bronson had been friends since kindergarten. It just so happened that they were hanging out that day at Bronson's family getaway in Olcott.
“One of our middle linebackers was there, and he's one of our top defensive players,” Sobieraski said. “I was going against him and they were just throwing the ball up over him to me. They were like, 'Dude, you really should play.' We were just goofing off. There were five or six of us. They didn't bug me. They let me make my own decision.”
Yeah, sure they did. There was no peer pressure whatsoever – nudge, nudge – on him to join them for the upcoming season.
It wasn't long before Dan Bronson started dialing up pass routes from the Lions' playbook and teaching Sobieraski hand signals they used when calling plays at the line of scrimmage. They worked on the finer points of pass routes, terminology and footwork. In no time, Sobieraski became a wide receiver.
So what's the big deal, you ask?
Sobieraski isn't a wide receiver. He's not even a football player. He's a third baseman who earned a baseball scholarship to the University at Buffalo. He's a power forward in basketball who was named second team in the Niagara Frontier League as a junior. He has no business playing football, really. But you only live once.
Do the math, as they did that day in the backyard, and it makes perfect sense. Sobieraski is 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and strong. Add his soft hands to his size and agility, and you get a premier athlete who can make an impact on any sport. Multiply that by his attitude and competitiveness, and divide by his lack of experience.
Final answer: undefined.
Sobieraski (pronounced So-BROW-skee) hasn't played football since he was an eighth-grader on the modified team. There's no way of knowing whether he'll be effective, but he should give the Lions a Gronk-esque, if not grotesque, advantage in the passing game. He's too big for defensive backs, too athletic for linebackers.
It was evident last weekend when he caught a touchdown pass in a scrimmage against Sweet Home. Sobieraski could cause major headaches for defensive backs on curl routes, for example, with his big frame and long arms. He also understands how to shield defensive backs, which he learned blocking out in basketball.
“He has some physical traits that we're going to be able to use to our advantage,” Greg Bronson said. “We need to develop the plays and put him into situations where we can capitalize on his attributes that give us an advantage over the guys covering him. I see him as a tremendous asset around the goal line.”
Father and son Bronson, coach and quarterback, must be salivating over their clipboards while imagining the possibilities. Allow me to suggest one play: end around, reverse option pass. With his big hands and an 87 mph fastball, Sobieraski should be able to throw a football, according to my calculations, about a mile. He's capable of throwing a Hail Mary to himself.
Where is all this going? Nowhere.
That's the beauty of the whole thing.
Too often these days, high school athletes and their parents are wondering where sports will take them. It's why fewer three-sport athletes exist now than in previous generations. Kids specialize in sports because they see scholarships. They see dollar signs. And they fail to see the benefits that come with the experience.
“You have an opportunity to do some things, and you know it's not going to carry into the future,” Bronson said. “But it's a chance to be with your friends and a chance to participate. You can contribute to your school and give every season a taste of your athleticism. You're not going to have this opportunity again.”
If anyone appreciates three-sports athletes, it's UB baseball coach Ron Torgalski. He played football, basketball and baseball at Nichols School. He played college basketball and is now coaching baseball. Sobieraski said Torgalski encouraged him to play football, partly because it could make him a better baseball player.
Sobieraski now enters football season, his only high school football season, for the right reasons. He has the potential to become a dominant wide receiver if enough things snap into place. Who knows? Maybe he'll draw interest from a few college coaches who are looking for a possession receiver. He has only one expectation.
“To have fun, and that's it,” he said. “It's all just about having fun. It's a good time hanging out with my buddies. It's the same guys I've been around with football, baseball, basketball, at the school, at the park. There's never a dull moment with these guys. It's always fun.”
Knowing the kid, it sounds about right.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've watched him closely in recent years while he played summer baseball with my son. Sobieraski is a fun-loving teenager from a great family. His father, Mike, is principal at Anna Merritt Elementary in Lockport. His mother, the former Wendy Darling, teaches special education at the high school.
Longtime Sabres fans would remember his maternal grandfather, Ted Darling. The legendary play-by-play man died when Sobieraski was an infant.
Seventeen years later, he is preparing to graduate from high school. He's like many kids who experience an awakening going into their senior year. They realize the end is near and start cherishing their family and friends. He learned last winter from his sister, Lea, how quickly sports can be taken away.
Lea was home from SUNY Geneseo and in good spirits when she sent her brother off to school last December. Two hours later, Charlie was pulled from class and told she needed an emergency liver transplant. She suffered from Wilson's disease, a rare and life-threatening genetic disorder in which copper cannot be broken down in the bloodstream.
In just a few hours, her life was in danger and the family's life was turned upside down. Lea overcame months of complications from the transplant, eventually returned to good health and few weeks ago was back at school. Charlie didn't realize as much at the time but, looking back, her illness had a profound impact on him.
With his parents at her bedside and his other sister, Emma, attending college in Rhode Island, Sobieraski spent many nights alone with his thoughts. He examined his priorities and gained a greater appreciation of his opportunities. He became more responsible. In less than a year, it seemed as if he matured by a decade.
“Everything switched,” Sobieraski said. “It all happened so fast. I don't even know if it's hit me yet. Bronson was always there to pick me up. He knew nobody was home. I give him all the credit for helping me get through it.”
One thing he came to understand was that chances are fleeting. You only get one senior year. Football had been pushed to the background because he didn't want to risk injury and jeopardize his future. Nearly four years later, he felt an emptiness that came from walking away from the game.
Everything became clear that day at the summer cottage. They were just a bunch of kids, hanging out together, throwing around a football, talking about their senior year, knowing there would never be another. His friends were getting excited for football season. He wanted to join them. He needed to join them.
Now that has, he can sleep in peace.
“I'm always going to play baseball,” Sobieraski said. “Baseball is my No. 1 sport. I just thought, 'Why not? Go have fun and just play.' I'm going to be a kid once. I'm going to play baseball for four years in college. I'm never going to play football again. This is it for me. This is one last chance.”