For senior Michael LaBarbera, captain of Valley Stream Central High School’s varsity football team, Saturday wasn’t only his final homecoming game. It was also one of the last times he would be hitting the gridiron wearing No. 31 for the Eagles.
The number has special significance for the 17-year-old. It was the same one his older brother, John, wore when he played basketball for Central. But John never made it to his senior year.
He died on Oct. 17, 2005, at the age of 16, when he experienced a sudden cardiac arrhythmia while participating in a basketball clinic at the school.
Nine years later, John’s basketball jersey still hangs in the school’s gym, and Central retired his number, so no other basketball player at the school will ever wear No. 31. But Michael was able to select his big brother’s number for his football uniform.
“I’m just showing that he’s with me at all times on the field,” Michael said.
And off the field, Michael said he always wears a rubber bracelet on his arm that reads: “Johnny -- Always in Our Hearts.”
The Valley Stream community has also helped keep John’s memory alive. Every year, Central hosts a memorial volleyball tournament in his honor. And the LaBarbera family has held a charity golf outing every Columbus Day for the past nine years to raise money for a memorial scholarship in their son’s name.
Nearly 200 people participated in this year’s event, raising $48,000 for the John A. LaBarbera ICAN AWARD Scholarship Fund.
“It just shows that he’s never forgotten,” John LaBarbera Sr. said of his son. “They’re a good community, really good people.”
The fund provide scholarships to graduating Central seniors who display integrity, character, altruism and nobility.
John LaBarbera Sr. said next year’s golf outing will be the last one. The family is choosing to end the tradition upon reaching the 10-year milestone, he said.
And with the baby of the family, the LaBarbera’s fourth child, graduating this spring, it appears they are closing a big chapter in their lives.
“It’s bittersweet,” LaBarbera said while watching his son play Saturday. His two daughters -- Cassie and Heather -- also graduated from Central.
“The staff has always been very supportive,” he added. “It’s like an extension of my family.”
Still, LaBarbera, who says he bleeds “Central blue,” says he still plans to help out at the school even after Michael graduates.
And regardless of where he choses to attend college, Michael said he’ll be back to visit his high school and cheer on its sports teams.
“Central has been my life ever since I was a little kid sitting in the stands,” he said. “Growing up, I always wanted to play Central football and I finally got that chance.”
On Saturday, Michael had an impressive run during the first half of the game. He carried the ball more than 60 yards before he was brought down just a few yards shy of the end zone.
“I was hoping for that touchdown to cap off my senior year,” he said. “I wanted to play every play like it was my last.”