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Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame: Charlie O'Brien, the founding father of WNY boys volleyball

The Green Bay Packers offered Charlie O’Brien a contract in the mid-1950s, but he turned it down. He asked his football coach from the University at Buffalo what he should do with the offer letter. His coach told him to frame it and show it to his grandkids.

So he did. Besides, he didn’t see football at the time as a sustainable profession anyway.

O’Brien attended Sloan High School from 1946-50 and after turning down the Packers’ offer, returned to the Buffalo area on the Cleveland Hill High School teaching staff. That began an illustrious career for the founding father of volleyball in Western New York, and he went on to post a 225-15 record coaching Cleveland Hill boys volleyball. During that time, he reeled off 119 straight wins and earned himself a spot in the February 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated.

For his legendary influence on Cleveland Hill and Section VI volleyball, which still stands strong today, O’Brien will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 1.

“I think it’s one of the highlights of my life,” O’Brien said. “I’m very pleased and honored and flattered by it.”

The year O’Brien started coaching at Cleveland Hill, the United States volleyball team wasn’t even invited to the Pan-American Games, he said. He read a newspaper article about the Americans’ exclusion, and it fueled his desire to grow the game at a local level.

He worked in the administration at Cleveland Hill and later became the school’s athletic director. He served as chairman for the Erie County Interscholastic Conference Athletic Directors Committee, helping the grassroots movement of volleyball into something bigger. In 1964, the sport was officially acknowledged by the ECIC.

“Before you knew it, we had a good nucleus,” O’Brien said, referencing a base group of Cleveland Hill, Eden, Orchard Park and Williamsville. “.., From there, we went on to do divisions.

“ … I basically had a teacher’s instinct. I wanted to coach and teach.”

O’Brien coached volleyball at Cleveland Hill from 1960-77, amassing an astronomical .938 winning percentage and rattling off 14 straight league titles and 11 sectional championships.

After leaving Cleveland Hill, O’Brien lived in Colorado for 18 years. When he returned to the Buffalo area, he noticed marked differences in how the game was played. The serves were better and more people were playing, most notably. He saw 15 teams playing at once in a gym. “For me, that was kind of a shock,” O’Brien said.

Forty years after leaving his perch as legendary Cleveland Hill coach, O’Brien is more than satisfied with how the game has grown. He’s still involved with the game locally, attending the annual Section VI banquet to interact with coaches and rising players. He’s encouraged by the amount of talent the area produces, even well after he helped ignite some of that talent decades ago.

“It’s blossomed all over the place,” O’Brien said. “It’s here to stay, volleyball. It’s an American game and the players we have do it justice.”

O’Brien smiles every time someone tells him their kid or other relative picked up volleyball. His influence, however direct or indirect, is still on every player that steps foot on a court in Buffalo today.

O’Brien was inducted into the Cleveland Hill High School Hall of Fame 27 years ago. In 2010, he was entered into the Western New York Boys Volleyball Hall of Fame. The award for best WNY volleyball coach is named after him.

But O’Brien’s favorite honor isn’t any of those, rather the one that comes next.

“This is kind of the crowning glory of it all,” he said. “I’m just very flattered with all the eligible people out there that I was selected, particularly at my age. I’m very flattered by the whole thing and happy for volleyball.

“I’ll be a volleyballer ‘til I die.”

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