It’s a sunny afternoon in St. Bernard without a cloud in the sky and Roger Bacon’s softball team hosts Norwood in the regular season finale.
Roger Bacon’s head coach Joey Barrow loves it. When he visits a local cafe, he prefers a table outside where he can listen to the chirping of birds and the flowing traffic over the frantic and subtle chatter from all directions inside.
“I appreciate little things like that,” he said.
That appreciation has grown naturally over time for Barrow, a two-time brain cancer survivor and Iraq War veteran.
On this day, Barrow wears khaki shorts, a gray t-shirt and, most importantly, a brown Roger Bacon hat.
Roger Bacon’s former sporting director Joe Corcoran gave him the hat. When Barrow returned from the war and first beat cancer, Corcoran helped him transition to civilian life, offering him a job helping in the athletic department.
“He (Corcoran) was one of the first people to help me become a normal person,” Barrow said. “He took a chance on me.”
Corcoran died in February 2013.
“It crushed me,” Barrow said.
It also inspired him. He swore to live a life that Corcoran would be proud of.
“He wanted me to be a servant.”
So here he is, pacing Roger Bacon’s dugout and giving back to his first year as a high school softball coach.
Roger Bacon’s bats come out on fire, scoring five times. When you put the ball in play, good things happen.
For Barrow, the same thing happened when he began to change his life to honor Corcoran. No more going with the flow. He set out to find happiness and make a difference in the lives of others.
“I was able to change and all these good things started happening,” he said.
In 2014, he discovered Team Rubicon, a disaster response agency run by veterans. He helped in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, then later in Newbern, North Carolina after Hurricane Florence and in Gatlinburg, Tennessee after the fires. For his work, he won two Presidential Volunteer Service Awards.
“Joe would have been super proud.”
That same year, he met Nicolle. They went to the movies in Newport for their first date on Memorial Day weekend. Less than three years later, they were married.
Nicolle is able to balance being the mother of her 15-year-old son, juggling full-time work and school schedules, and her new job as a coach.
“I told her I needed a woman on my coaching staff and she jumped on it,” he said. “He’s a superstar.”
Barrow, from the third base coaching box, encourages senior Elizabeth Weigand to keep fighting after fouling on two pitches with the count even at 2-2.
“Stay in the fight, kid,” he urged.
Barrow speaks from experience.
Barrow had joined the navy after graduating from Roger Bacon in 2002 and was aboard USS George Washington before joining Task Force 55 with the 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
In 2005, he experienced weird sensations in his head. After the migraine medications didn’t help, several tests were done, revealing a tumor. Her world changed overnight.
“I’m 21 and I have all kinds of things to do,” Barrow said. “It all came to an abrupt end.”
Before Roger Bacon’s turn at the plate, Barrow tries to adjust third base to the correct spot after a slide shifts it. After a few moments of adjustment and rotation, he gives up and flips his palms up, as if to say “oh, well.”
It’s rare to see Barrow throw in the towel with anything. It was never an option before. After an 18.5 hour operation that left him without part of his skull, he returned to Cincinnati and continued to fight, starting with an optimistic outlook.
“I just ate well, stayed active, stayed positive and kept the faith and it was gone. I beat it. The tumor slowly disappeared,” he said.
It was the same mindset he had planned to use when training to become a Navy Seal. When his tumor was discovered, Barrow was only weeks away from going to Coronado, Calif., for basic underwater demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.
“My orders to BUD/S were on my boss’s desk,” Barrow recalled.
Despite a high dropout rate, Barrow was confident he would succeed. Running on the beach in boots, swimming two miles, doing obstacle courses and protecting yourself from drowning wouldn’t derail it.
It’s been stripped.
The positive mindset developed in the military that should have been used to get a trident to his chest was instead used when he was homeless from 2006 to 2008, sleeping in his car or on a friend’s couch in Washington, D.C. DC, region so that it does not lack treatment. He hated not having a home, but he was resourceful and had to do whatever it took to survive.
“I wasn’t going to miss my appointments,” Barrow said. “I used that mindset to beat cancer.”
A nonchalant defensive effort sees a Norwood runner move into goalscoring position.
“Don’t give up on a bullet,” Barrow shouted from the dugout.
Although he beat cancer, that didn’t mean his mindset conquered everything. His mental health suffered. PTSD, the effects of the loss and seeing his military friends not returning home took their toll.
“I was just trying to take care of myself, but it was destroying me.”
It’s now a 5-2 game and Barrow rips his hat off in a brief moment of frustration after a Roger Bacon runner was sent off at home to end the inning.
This is true Dan Starkey fashion, according to Barrow.
In high school, Barrow played for Starkey, coaching football at Roger Bacon for nearly 40 years and one of the reasons he pursued high school life.
Outside of sports and recreational youth leagues, Barrow’s coaching career began as a junior varsity assistant at Oak Hills in 2016. He was absent from softball for the next five years, but again, he never gave in, until his dream job opened up at his alma materia in 2021.
He was named head coach in February.
“It’s something I wanted to do and here I am. I do it.”
Roger Bacon, leading 7-2, nearly escapes a jam, but a two-out fly ball is dropped, resulting in a Norwood run.
Barrow has worked hard to instill a short memory into his players.
“Don’t dwell on the past,” Barrow explained. “Questions about what you could have done differently are for after the game, not during.”
He wants his players to be in the same moment he was when he first saw combat in the Second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004, less than two months after his 21st birthday.
“You just fall back on your training and focus on what needs to be done. You don’t really think about it until it’s over,” Barrow said.
Roger Bacon charges the bases with no outs – the perfect situation to get out.
Barrow, despite his difficulties, has also come here before. By 2013, he had beaten cancer and found a new job on the Ohio River working on coal barges.
“It was a great job, a ton of money, I thought, ‘That’s life,'” Barrow said.
Then, a familiar feeling came back to him.
“I know what it is,” he remembered thinking.
Roger Bacon is empty in the sixth and Norwood immediately threatens in the last frame, scoring a run and loading the bases with two outs, sending the go-ahead at home plate.
“Take a deep breath here,” Barrow told senior pitcher Sammi Hoffman.
Barrow is cool and calm in dangerous situations. In fact, he is looking for them. He enjoyed working on coal barges, suspecting it was a way to replace his time in the military, trading the Persian Gulf for the Ohio River.
“It was like being at sea again and there was an element of thrill. I think that’s why I loved it.”
There was even more danger on tap, however. His tumor had come back. He was back under the knife less than a month later. He would also win this battle.
Not that stressful softball situations like this don’t make him uncomfortable; it’s just easier to put things into perspective.
“These situations trained me perfectly for something like this,” he said.
Hoffman lands an endgame popup and Roger Bacon wins, 7-4. They end the regular season 11-6, the program’s first winning campaign since 2018.
A team huddled in left field after the win is anything but happy. Barrow is discouraged by what he felt was a lack of sportsmanship on the part of his team bickering in the dugout and speaking out on controversial calls.
“At Roger Bacon, we are all about sportsmanship. We are a Franciscan school: service, kindness, compassion and understanding,” Barrow said.
He knows the feeling of not living up to expectations. In 2010, a bar fight left him with a two-week stint in a justice center, reading books with missing pages.
“That was the bottom,” recalls Barrow. “What am I doing here? I don’t want to live like this anymore. I’m a veteran with an honorable discharge. There’s a standard I have to live up to.
Barrow looks exhausted, slumped as he sits on a cooler, talking to assistant coach Jonathan Cole. Despite the disappointment with his team’s lack of sense of the game, “a victory is a victory”.
Sometimes, Barrow learned, you just enjoy the end result, regardless of the bumpy journey to get there.
All in all, he fulfilled a coaching dream at his alma mater. He also found his soul mate. He is a veteran and survivor who has become a positive influence on others across the country through his volunteer efforts.
Plus, the sun is shining and he’s wearing his favorite hat.