BOWLING GREEN — The cold winds rattling through the skeletal trees surrounding Doyt Perry Stadium on the Bowling Green State University campus forewarned that the fall football season would soon give way to winter weather.
Though they had hoped the season would end with a Division IV state championship, the streaking Comets would fall from their sky-high season eight days later in a heartbreaking 42-34 loss to Kettering Alter.
Yet for one magical night here on Nov. 14, the glow of this 2008 season shined brightly for the streaking Comets and their faithful followers.
“Iron Man” Blair Skilliter, Greg Hillabrand, Marcus Vicars and the rest of the back-to-back Suburban Lakes League-champions seemed energized by the chance to pull on their maroon and gray jerseys and big, bad “G” helmets in the plush locker room facilities of the BGSU Falcons. The team took to the sidelines and played on the field as if the Comets were a Midwest Athletic Conference (MAC) team and it was a college football Saturday.
Watching from the seats were thousands of pumped-up Genoa High School students, parents and alums who comprise this close-knit, well-traveled, circus-on-wheels known as “Comet Nation.” They waved white “rally rags” like they were so many twirling “Terrible Towels” at a Pittsburgh Steelers game and they high-fived and hugged one another like Christmas morning each time the Comets scored.
Despite despicable weather that included a driving rain, the Comets burned through another opponent with a 40-21 win over the Ottawa-Glandorf Titans. The victory ran their 2008 season record at that point to 10-0 (7-0 in the SLL and 3-0 in the playoffs). The evening had the warm, déjà vu feeling of Homecoming night and all the pageantry and excitement that comes with it — plus the outcome came with a Regional Championship trophy.
It was an especially good feeling for John Harbal, a member of the Genoa Class of 1968. The president of the Bowling Green State University Board of Trustees, Harbal was an all-league wide receiver and multi-year letter winner for legendary Comets Coach Jim Firestone back when Genoa played in the Northern Lakes League.
Yet Harbal said watching the Comets victory at Doyt from high up in a press box was one of the greatest moments ever in his association with Genoa High School.
“I can’t even begin to describe to you how personally thrilling it was for me to witness tonight, with all of our refurbished facilities here at BGSU, these Genoa Comets play a regional playoff game on this field,” Harbal said. “Because truthfully, I never, ever would’ve dreamed that this would’ve been possible.”
Harbal reminisced a little about Genoa’s 1964-67 football teams — which went a combined 27-10-3 — during a “Huddle at the Half” radio segment at the Doyt game.
“We had some pretty good, solid football teams back in those days,” he said. “…But quite obviously, we were not as good as these guys playing out on this field tonight, or not even close to this team, for that matter.
“Because with what Coach Mike Vicars has done to turn this program around in just two short years, and to re-establish the rich football tradition that both Coach Firestone (1959-1976, 109-60-6) and Coach John Boles (1986-1997, 73-47) forged as the two most-winning football coaches in Genoa Comets history, I’d rank him right up there as one of the very best with those two other guys,” Harbal said. “What he’s been able to do in such a short time has been such a fun ride, and so amazing to behold. And I think this particular group of young boys that he’s assembled on this field tonight represent the maroon and gray very proudly.”
Harbal said the most important lessons he learned from playing football at Genoa were “discipline, and personal conditioning. And of course, the importance of always working as a team.”
Coach Firestone was very disciplined, Harbal said, and was a motivator who “got the most out of the talent that he at the time, which for the most part, were just blue-collar guys, and farm boys who loved to play football.”
Teamwork and the need to work together were the key in football as they are in life, Harbal said. “Comet Football taught me as a wide receiver that if our offensive line didn’t block, I wouldn’t be getting the ball very much from our quarterback Dan Matthews. And that as a punt returner and a kick returner, if I didn’t get the blocks set up by my teammates, I wasn’t going to go very far with the football on special teams. And it was the same on the defensive side of the ball, if our defensive line didn’t put enough pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, I wouldn’t have many chances to intercept any balls.”
Harbal pointed out that “it only takes one person not doing their job to result in a busted play. Which is just like it is in business: It only takes one person to mess up an order from a customer. And it takes everybody doing their job well, to satisfy our customers, and that’s what makes a successful company. I think the success you see on this athletic field here tonight, can be attributed to everybody pulling together, and doing their jobs well.”
Although he was also a forward on the Genoa basketball team and an All-League first baseman for the baseball team, Harbal said “football was my favorite, and I came away with a lot of memories from my time of playing on Bergman Field.”
He cited playing with quarterback Dan Matthews, and linebackers Jeff Rice and John Lewis, who were co-captains his senior year in 1967, and playing alongside his brother Tim at defensive back among his fondest moments.
“I hate to mention folks’ names, because you’re always going to leave people out, but I have a lot of really great Genoa football memories, thanks to a lot of really great Genoa people,” he said.
A modest and unassuming guy, Harbal is not one to talk a lot about his personal best moments. Like that Friday evening against then-rivals Springfield in 1967, when Harbal told teacher Alice David to get to Bergman Field early so she wouldn’t miss what he promised would be a fast start to the game. On the first play from scrimmage, Harbal caught a 51-yard pass play from Matthews for a touchdown — the first of three TD catches that he had on a nine-catch, 181-yard night.
On defense, there was the time he picked off a pass against the Comets’ biggest league rivals, the Rossford Bulldogs, and took it back all the way to the house for a touchdown. In addition, in the Homecoming game against Elmwood during that same swan song, senior year, No. 81 returned a punt for a touchdown on the visiting Royals.
But Harbal was not all about athletics in high school. For if he was, he would not be where he is today.
He served as a savvy business manager for the yearbook staff, played percussion in the concert band, participated in the Genoa Drama Club for a year, and truly found his niche in life via the Key Club, a service-based student organization that was responsible for first pouring that bedrock foundation that keeps him so grounded — and wanting to give back to the community.
After high school, Harbal went to Bowling Green State University and graduated in 1972 with a degree in marketing and a specialization in selling and sales management.
He and his young family moved away from the area for about 10 years to Indianapolis on the strength of a promotion with the Colgate/Palmolive Co. But the tug of his hometown eventually brought him back to northwest Ohio in 1985. He became the chairman and CEO of Impact Products, a Toledo-based plastics company, and has headed the successful business venture for 23 years.
He also began serving BGSU with stints on the College of Business Alumni Advisory Board, the President’s Club and the Falcon Club. In 2001, he was appointed by the governor to BGSU’s board of trustees and is now in his eighth year on the board.
In addition, Harbal has given back to his beloved hometown, having served on the Genoa Area School Board during the 1990s. During his time on the board, he was instrumental in ridding the district of the now-defunct Camper Elementary School and purchasing those prime 58 acres from Paul and Sandy Blausey out near the high school so one day the district could realize its ambitious dream of building its brand-new, state-of-the-art elementary school upon that land.
And despite his personal ties to glorious but old Bergman Field, Harbal was one of the important, supportive votes to finally move the home of the Genoa High football team to its new digs at Comet Stadium.
But this night was about the Doyt digs and the young men down on the field of play, where senior halfback Blair Skilliter and junior fullback Greg Hillabrand hoisted the Regional Championship trophy into the rainy night air for all their loyal fans to see.
“I just thought that it was a wonderful gesture,” Harbal said. “…They were giving back to their fans for all the support that they’ve given them throughout this season and all the years by saying, ‘Here, we want you to savor this just as much as we do.” Harbal said the 2008 Comets were a confident team, “but it’s a positive confidence. It’s not an arrogance. The way these kids play together, and work together, and stick together like a family, it’s just been really fun and a pleasure to watch this year. I’m so happy for them.”
And oh, so proud that the regional trophy is finally home where it belongs.
Home with the Comets.