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Remembering Bob Bigelow: A Tireless Advocate For Youth Athletes

To say that 2020 was unfathomably brutal is an understatement. We all seem to know someone who was very sick or died this year, some from the novel Covid-19 virus, or from other illnesses, accidents or suicides. One of the friends I lost this past year, to whom I often turned when I needed advice or cheering up in my personal or professional life, was former University of Pennsylvania basketball standout, NBA player and longtime youth sports expert Bob Bigelow, who passed away unexpectedly on August 18th at the age of 66.

I will never forget the last time we talked, a phone call I received from Bob, out of the blue, in June 2020. He greeted me warmly:  “Brooke de Lench, my old friend and warrior for kids in sports from Concord, how are you; how are my friends at MomsTeam, and how are you holding up in the pandemic?” He wished me an early happy anniversary (MomsTeam turned 20 on August 23, just days after his untimely and sudden death), asked how my son Taylor was doing (recalling the videos he produced of Bob in his early days as a videographer which would lead to a stint at the Boston Globe and nine regional Emmy’s; Bob was still puzzled why Taylor, at 6 feet 6 inches, chose squash over basketball); and wanted to know whether I was still going into our offices or working from home, all in the booming bass voice we all loved.

We had known each other for close to twenty years, ever since Bob called me in 2001, a year after MomsTeam launched, to ask if he could feature my organization’s work in a youth sports parenting book he was writing along with Tom Maroney and Linda Hall called Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports.

From that time forward Bob always called to wish MomsTeam a Happy Anniversary. Bob was like that, his recall of people, dates, events and birth years was remarkable. (I never asked, but I am willing to bet he could list each of the over 2,000 talks he gave to young athletes, parents and coaches over his long career as a youth sports expert.)

A Life's Work 

Bob's life’s work was to arm sports parents with strategies to make the needs of young athletes the priority in youth sports, not the needs of adults. He showed how team sports could be organized to develop the athletes’ skills, not just win games. He conducted research that proved how his model for youth programs not only helped kids learn but addressed a number of problems in the youth sports environment (out-of-control parents, abusive coaches etc.). Bob also spoke extensively to high school athletes about the dangers of chewing tobacco and the importance of never starting the habit.

Bob understood the business of youth sports and believed, as I do, that it was the adult ego that has ruined adult sports. We could never have predicted that it would be a pandemic that might end up changed kids’ games, maybe forever.

A Life Cut Short 

Bob was very much full of life and optimism when we spoke. He was particularly excited to tell me about his soon- to-be-born first grandchild and how much he looked forward to becoming a grandparent. Knowing now what I didn’t know then (in the words of the Bob Seger song), it was particularly painful to learn that Bob had died from sudden cardiac arrest, just weeks after being diagnosed with a heart arrythmia and, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time he called me one afternoon out-of-the-blue for what would prove to be the last time.

That diagnosis also put into context another topic we spoke about on our last call: the first-of-its kind program MomsTEAM had launched in 2002 to promote the placement of Automatic External Defibrillators  (AEDs) at every youth sports competition. Bob wondered whether we would consider running it again. I told him it was unlikely. He prodded further and told me it was needed again. He didn’t explain the basis for his renewed sense of urgency in getting AEDs for every youth sports program. I do know that, he lived, he would have been my pick for a spokesperson.

I may never forget our last conversation for many reasons but, mostly for the way he ended the call — a way he probably ended calls with his hundreds of friends — with a heartfelt compliment, reminding me about the important contribution I made to helping keep kids safe playing sports. “You have led the way in injury prevention, and no one can take that away from you,” he told me. “You are the ‘Mother of Youth Sports Safety.”

I closed our conversation by urging him to “keep on doing what you are doing best, Bob — advocating and demanding that kids have fun before anything else. We will get through the pandemic and get the kids on the field again soon. In the meantime, have fun with your grandbaby!” Sadly, Bob only had a short time to know baby Benjamin.

I will truly miss my friend Bob, as will his wife Nancy, his sons David and Stephen, his grandson, and his many, many friends in youth sports and in his hometown of Winchester. 

When I think of Bob, a favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson quote comes to mind:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”

By Emerson’s definition, there is no doubt at all: Bob’s life was a great success. Thanks for everything you did for the kids, Bob.

Below are links to some of the MomsTeam projects on which we collaborated with Bob and, as a gift from Bob’s family, a link where readers can download, read and pass along to others Bob’s last book (written with former MomsTEAM Institute columnist and Board of Director, Doug Abrams).

Article: My Ten Commandments for Youth Sports

Article: What’s Happening to Our Kids

Article: Small-Sided Basketball: Best Way to Play and Learn for Elementary School Players

Video: Bob Bigelow on How to Fix Youth Sports

Video: How to Spot a Dipper 

Video: Who uses smokeless tobacco?

Video: How to Quit Chewing Tobacco

Book: Youth Sports: Still Failing Our Kids — How to Really Fix It