The most memorable moment of his injury-shortened football career occurred when Dave Disorbio included himself in Park City High School’s huddle and waited for the next play to be called. There was only one problem: He was playing for the Highland High Rams and had no business there whatsoever. Legend says you could hear him laughing about it all the way through the brawl he ignited.
The laughter and shenanigans lasted until Disorbio reached a point where it seemed that no was the only word he ever heard. No, he didn’t have the talent to play college baseball as a catcher. No, he didn’t have the brainpower to earn a degree from any four-year school worth its graduation rate. No, he didn’t have what he had always assumed was his inalienable right to dream of being a coach.
What the naysayers neglected to consider as they tried to shoo Disorbio from their door was the size of his heart. It came in a package that stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall but was as thick and solid as a sack of concrete. He wasn’t built for being pushed around. He was built for hard work.
That was what made him more than anyone, maybe including himself, ever thought he could be. He was a University of Utah catcher who coaxed the best out of pitchers by refusing to let them throw anything less, and one summer he banged out enough base hits in Salt Lake City’s old Amateur League to bat .500. He put in his time at the library, earned his degree from the U. in 1968 and began a nearly 20-year run at Judge Memorial High School that was memorable for more than his work as head baseball coach and an assistant in football. He established a girls weightlifting program long before Title IX came into being, and he stood taller than everyone else on the faculty when it came time to help a fellow teacher in need.
There is more to Dave Disorbio’s story, but the sad part can’t be put off any longer. He died at age 77 early Monday at University Hospital after suffering a stroke in his East Bench home four days before. The bad news traveled fast. With it came tears and the keening that propels grief.
But a wonderful thing happened once the shock wore off. Everyone started telling stories about Disorbio — wild, hilarious, blues-vanquishing stories that brought him back to life however briefly. Some of them may even have been true.
On his own in those days, Disorbio could be scary. Some old friends swear he could grow a full beard overnight when most 12- and 13-year-olds were still searching for their first chin hairs. But the terror factor increased exponentially when he found a wingman so big he had two nicknames, Honey Bear and G. Approximately the size of a meat locker, G wore a football helmet that could have held two normal-sized heads. His favorite candy bar was a Big Hunk, hence his junior-high motto: “A Big Hunk a day keeps G Brown away.”
You may have noticed by now that almost everyone in Disorbio’s world had a nickname, usually bestowed upon them by the little big man himself. There was Cheeks, Bulldog, Sparky, Moving Van, Featherhead, Sour Grapes, PeeRoo, Loody, Bubba, Nuts and Nutsy. A friend’s distinguished father was known as Casey Stengel. Disorbio’s younger brothers became Hunk and Sooba and made to like it. Your correspondent answered to Schuliano though I have not a drop of Italian blood in me. Disorbio even had a nickname for the white cotton newsboy cap he wore in summer: a Shorty Lancaster, in honor of the late greenskeeper at Nibley Park Golf Course.
With the names came the stories that Disorbio polished to a high sheen, stories about the man who mentored him as a character, Sheik Caputo, and the future pro ballplayers he trained after he left Judge. Stories like the one about the future heart surgeon who Judo-chopped an off-duty cop coaching in a fractious American Legion baseball game. Stories Disorbio told when he worked summers grooming the diamonds at what was then called Municipal Park. Stories he watched unfold when he tended bar part time at a joint where the clientele included off-duty county sheriffs and professional wrestlers who might start practicing body slams at any moment.
The stories have gained new life as old friends tell their versions of them while Disorbio’s sister, Dianne, and her two remaining brothers, Mark and Bobby, come to grips with their loss. Already there is talk of a memorial service once some semblance of normalcy returns to our pandemic-stricken nation.
Maybe someone will tell the story of the faculty meeting at Judge when Disorbio stood up to the principal to fight for health coverage for a young teacher stricken with cancer. It ultimately cost him his job, but it certified forevermore that the untamed kid had grown up at last.
John Schulian, a graduate of East High and the University of Utah, is a screenwriter and a former Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist.