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Bowling gave 'Coach K' his life. He returned the favor

Bowling gave 'Coach K' his life. He returned the favor

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Bowling Is Life. The Rest Is Just Details.

That’s what it says on a T-shirt available online. Pat Kwiatkowski might as well have had it tattooed on his chest. Bowling really was his life.

He played on the first bowling team Canisius High School ever had. He met his future wife on the lanes at SUNY Fredonia and they would have three boys — Scott, Michael and Matthew. And Pat would coach all of them on bowling teams at Canisius.

How he got the gig is typical of Pat, who exemplified the Jesuit motto of men and women for others. Scott was about to start his senior season on the bowling team and Michael his sophomore season in 1996 when the coach suddenly stepped down. With their season on the brink, Pat said he would coach — for one year.

One year turned into two. Two turned into three. And three turned into 23. Only death has kept him from a 24th season — and from being at Canisius on Saturday when he will be honored posthumously at the high school’s gathering for its distinguished alumni hall of honor and its athletics hall of fame.

Mary Jean, Pat’s wife, says she’ll never forget the look on Pat’s face when he got the call to tell him he had won the John F. Barnes Award, a sort of lifetime achievement award for contributions to Canisius athletics.

“He was so happy, he cried,” she says. “He said, ‘We did it.’ And by we he meant our family as a whole — we all did it.”

For Pat, who died at 65 in September, it was always about family. He was even coaching up his grandkids — ages 10, 7 and 5 — when they bowled Saturday mornings on Grand Island.

Full disclosure: Pat was my Canisius classmate. We graduated a lifetime ago, in 1972. He is the second member of our class to receive the Barnes award, named for the high school’s legendary football coach. We could have predicted the other one.

John Buszka was a baseball star who led the Crusaders to Georgetown Cup championships in 1971 and 1972. Pat, meanwhile, was a middling bowler on that inaugural team that didn’t win a title. (Bishop Turner won the first league championship.)

“Bowlers are usually thought of as the nerds of school, not your true athletes,” Mary Jean says. “That’s not right. It takes stamina and skill. They really are great athletes.”

She’ll get no argument from Buszka, who was also a member of that first Canisius bowling team in 1970-71. Buszka would go on to baseball stardom at the University at Buffalo, where he led the nation in batting average in 1976.

“I asked Pat once how he learned to coach,” Buszka says. “He said you talk to people, you do the research and you support your kids. He was completely dedicated to Canisius.”

Pat won more than 700 games — a win clip of better than 70% — in his coaching career, including 10 championships. He leaves the program in good hands: Michael, who has been coaching JV for his father for 12 years, is the new varsity coach.

Michael teaches fourth-grade math at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy in Buffalo. His brothers work at Jesuit schools — Scott in sports information at Fordham University and Matthew in admissions at Canisius College.

Michael’s melancholy first act as varsity coach was gathering his players to tell them his father — the man they called Coach K — had died. Michael didn’t want them to hear it from social media or anywhere else.

The team finished third last regular season, behind St. Joe’s and St. Francis. Then, in the All-Catholic meet, the Crusaders played out of their minds and won the postseason title by almost 100 pins over St. Joe’s and more than 200 over St. Francis.

“They did it for him,” Michael says. “There’s no other explanation for it.”

Coach K’s bowlers didn’t know for sure then that it was his last hurrah, but they understood it well could be as he had struggled with heart issues for years.

Pat spent the last week of his life in the ICU at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. That’s when his sons heard for the first time the full story of how their parents met.

Pat bowled on the men’s team at SUNY Fredonia and Mary Jean bowled on the women’s team — love on the lanes, if not at first sight. Pat was originally dating someone else on the women’s team. When they broke up, Mary Jean thought it was admirable Pat was still coming to see his former girlfriend play.

“And she said, ‘Are you an idiot or what?’ ” Mary Jean says, laughing. “ ‘He’s coming to watch you.’ ”

They began dating soon after. They were married for 42 years. They had three sons at home and hundreds more on all those bowling teams.

“He had a heart of gold when it came to those kids,” Mary Jean says. “They were all his boys.”

Make that a heart of blue and gold. Pat’s great heart gave out on Sept. 10, but his legacy lives on: The Crusaders open defense of their All-Catholic title later this month with Michael at the helm.

At his father’s funeral, at St. Thomas Aquinas in South Buffalo, Michael offered a eulogy with this parting salute: “Enjoy bowling with the angels.”

The imagery speaks of strikes and spares on celestial lanes. Time to update the T-shirt:

Bowling Is Afterlife. The Rest Is Just Details.

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