Football Coach John Buckley, 87

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Back in the mid-1950s, when the boys of Anacostia were playing recreational football every autumn in a league sponsored by the Metropolitan Police Boys Club, the coach they clamored to play for was a burly, hard-nosed Vince Lombardi-type named John Buckley. The kids lucky enough to play for him probably had heard that his teams for players weighing 85 pounds or less were not only undefeated for several years running but also unscored on for four straight years.

They might have heard that Mr. Buckley played football. After being an All-Metro lineman for McKinley Technical High School, he played semipro ball for the Anacostia Eagles and during the war years was drafted by the Washington Redskins. They probably knew that he also coached baseball, basketball and boxing at the D.C. Recreation Center in Congress Heights.

What they might not have known initially was that their big, tough coach was legally blind.

John Richard Buckley, who died June 7 of cancer at age 87, was born with a rare disease called X-linked retinoschisis, which causes the retina to deteriorate, like holes tearing open in cheesecloth. His parents realized that he had the congenital disease when as a 5-year-old he failed to see an oncoming car. He had a bit of peripheral vision, and he could make out shapes. Over a lifetime, he learned how to compensate.

An example: His son-in-law, Terry Osman, has a twin brother; both played football for Mr. Buckley when they were youngsters. "The only way he distinguished between the two of us was the way we ran," Osman recalled. "Nobody else could tell who was Terry or Gary, but he could distinguish us."

Mr. Buckley's daughter -- also named Terry Osman -- recalled how she would try to get away with wearing a bit of makeup as a 16-year-old, despite her father's dictum about waiting until she was out of high school. "My father would catch me every time," she recalled, laughing.

She asked him, years later, how he did it, since he could not see the features of her face, much less whether she had applied a bit of eye shadow or a touch of lipstick. He explained that he could tell by her tone of voice; a tiny quaver of guilt betrayed her. "You didn't get away with much," she said.

Harriet Smith met Mr. Buckley when he wangled a seat beside her in English class at McKinley Tech in the late 1930s. Buck -- he was Buck his whole life, never John -- kept asking her for a date, but she was wary of going out with him; the Tech football players had a reputation for drinking and rowdiness. But he was charming and persistent, and a superb dancer.

On Feb. 22, 1940, the two went on their first date -- to a battle of the big bands at the Wardman Park Hotel. Two years later, Harriet Smith became Harriet Smith Buckley. She was 18; he was 20.

His high school buddies called him "Blind Man," Harriet Buckley recalled. Sitting in her Gambrills apartment one morning recently, she remembered a long-ago football game and the opposing team's quarterback executing a masterful fake. Mr. Buckley was the only defender who did not go for the fake; he stayed with the quarterback. "Hey, Blind Man's chasing the wrong guy!" the soon-to-be Mrs. Buckley heard his teammates shout. Only it wasn't the wrong guy.

After the game, she mentioned what she had heard. Mr. Buckley laughed. "Harriet," he said, "I've been hearing that all my life. It doesn't bother me."

During World War II, he worked at the Navy Yard, where he calibrated the optics on munitions -- by touch. Since he usually arrived home from work earlier than his wife, he got into the habit of strolling over to a Congress Heights playground most afternoons. The District Parks and Recreation Department eventually offered him a job as a coach; it was obvious that he had a gift for working with kids.

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