Newsday's Gregg Sarra presented Andrew Bardak, a senior linebacker at St. Anthony's, with the Rich Reichert Award, which Newsday presents to the presented to the best player from the Long Island schools in the Catholic High School Football League. Credit: Barry Sloan

The sun was up, and an early morning August practice, the first of summer football workouts, was set to begin.

St. Anthony’s coach Joe Minucci said he noticed the open door to the equipment shed.

"I wanted to see who was in there getting ready for practice," Minucci said. "Who was setting the tone for the first practice? And it was no surprise who walked out of the equipment shed first."

Andrew Bardak emerged carrying equipment, the first player on the field. Bardak was not a freshman or sophomore looking to make an impression because it may increase playing time.

This was Bardak, an All-Catholic High School Football League selection, at his finest - a person of character leading by example and showing the younger players how it’s done.

"Andrew was the first player at practice and the last to leave all season," Minucci said. "He would set up and would clean up. And no one ever asked him to do that. He was a team captain and a tremendous leader, a perfect example of a model student-athlete."

Bardak set the tone before every game with epic pregame speeches that inspired a young St. Anthony’s team. He was a tackling machine and a powerful voice in the huddle.

The senior led the Friars with 65 tackles, including 11 for a loss, two sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles and a recovery in a consistent season-long stellar defensive effort. For his leadership qualities and outstanding performance, Bardak earned Newsday’s second annual Rich Reichert Award presented to the best player from the Long Island schools in the Catholic High School Football League.

"I am truly honored to receive an award named after a St. Anthony’s coaching legend," Bardak said. "I couldn’t have accomplished this without my coaches and teammates. My St. Anthony’s experience has been incredible from the schooling to the sports."

Bardak was so much more than a football player for St. Anthony’s. He was also an exceptional rugby player and a Catholic State wrestling champion at 215 pounds. He will attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he will continue his rugby career.

"I’ve decided to play rugby and end my football career and that shouldn’t change,’ Bardak said. "I will study to become the best officer I can be in the United States Army."

The 17-year-old Bardak of Wading River has a fantastic foundation for the discipline he will need in pursuit of his dreams of becoming an officer.

When he was accepted to attend St. Anthony’s, located in South Huntington, in his freshman year, he had to take the 6:25 a.m. train from Port Jefferson to Huntington and then a bus would bring him to the school by 8 a.m.

"I had to get up around 5:45 a.m. and my dad would drive me from Riverhead to Port Jeff on his way to work so I could make the train," Bardak laughed. "I’d throw on my school uniform, grab my packed lunch from the night before . . . sometimes with an extra sandwich . . . and we’d go. The colder days weren’t fun, but it was a commitment for that Catholic education."

Sacrifices aside, Bardak never wavered in his commitment to St. Anthony’s. And in return he built lifelong friendships.

"It was an important time in my life," he said. "We moved from Rocky Point to Wading River . . . after my mom had lost her long battle with breast cancer. She was the toughest person I knew.

And I was broken when she passed. I was only 10. She was my rock."

Barbara Bardak was 43 years old when she passed away July 31, 2014. Her death further fueled Bardak to be the best person he could be.

"She was sick for a very long time," he said. "And I didn’t know what cancer was and somewhat ignorant to the severity of it and what she was going through. She had times where she couldn’t even walk from the chemotherapy. She always had doctor appointments, went bald, had wigs and I didn’t realize until I got older how hard she fought."

Bardak remembered breaking his leg at 4 years old and being confined to a wheelchair for three months.

"I wanted to go out and play in a blizzard and I couldn’t because of the wheelchair," he said. "My mom was going through chemo and was in so much pain. She put me first, her little boy, put on my snow gear and pushed me down the driveway and onto the neighbor’s front lawn to build a snow fort. I’ll always remember it."

Bardak is the youngest of three siblings, including his 21-year-old sister Emily, a student at the Air Force Academy. Emily will graduate in June and attend pilot school. His brother Chris, 19, is a sophomore at the Air Force Academy.

"We’re all close," he said. "And my dad has had the greatest influence in my life. He has supported me every step of the way."

Steve Bardak, a retired Suffolk County Police Officer, said his son embodies the spirit of everything Reichert built at St. Anthony’s.

"Andrew Bardak is a renaissance man," said St. Anthony’s school principal, Brother David Migliorino OSF. "He’s such a humble, sincere down to earth young man. He does our retreat program and is wise beyond his years. We are so proud of him."

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