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Don Bacon paused as he tried to gather his thoughts of his older brother Marshall, one of his 10 siblings from a family that carries a storied history in Tucson for more than 70 years.
Their mom Lillie was always an inspiration providing the hope for a long, fulfilled life. She lived to be 104 years before passing on Nov. 11, 2017.
Don visited Marshall at his assisted-living home in Tucson about a month ago and his brother was in good spirits.
That was the last time Don saw him alive. Complications from COVID-19 claimed his life. He was 81.
“It was kind of weird, because he was in assisted living and he was fine, but then on Wednesday of last week, they moved him into a room with somebody else and two days later, he got the disease,” Don said. “We’re thinking he got it from the person who they moved him into the room with or from something in the room because he was fine.”
Don is at Colorado Springs, Colo., doing his summer ritual staying with his son Omar, the former Sahuaro High School star running back who went on to a stellar career at Utah before playing with the New York Giants.
Don’s daughter Shawn also lives in Colorado Springs with her three kids. Omar has four children.
“We can’t have a funeral because of this (COVID-19); that’s why I’m not going to go home,” Don said. “Just being around my grandkids and my son and daughter up here helps me out a lot.”
Shawn, a 1986 Sahuaro graduate, is a resolution specialist for Progressive Insurance. Omar runs his own personal training business called CO One Step Ahead.
Don’s oldest son Barry, also a football standout with Sahuaro who went on to play at ASU, lives in Phoenix working as an emergency medical technician supervisor with a background as a firefighter. He is vying to be a fire captain in Phoenix. He has two kids.
“My family was an athletic family that motivated me to be around kids,” Don said.
The Bacons are to Tucson much like what the Robinsons (with the accomplished Cleo, Paul and Jerry) and the Batistes (Ernest, Joe, Frank and Fred) have meant to the city. The Robinsons (1960’s) and Batistes (1930’s and 40’s) were headliners locally in track and football. The Robinsons and Bacons are in fact related.
Don is the first cousin of Cleo, Paul and Jerry. Cleo, a longtime college football referee, is the grandfather of Salpointe running back standout Bijan Robinson, who is bound for Texas. Jerry became the president of the San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce and Paul is a former Arizona football player who made it to the NFL.
The Robinsons’ father Leslie (who changed his last name from Bacon to Robinson) and Don’s father Joy Bacon Sr. were children of farm workers from Crockett, Texas. They moved to Tucson in the late 1940’s with the hope of working their way out of poverty during the Jim Crowe era.
Joy, who became a minister, and Lillie settled in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, less than a mile from Arizona’s campus. It was a place where blacks could buy a home between World War II and the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1960’s.
“Sugar Hill is where I got to know my wife Quillis,” Don said. “I met her when I was playing basketball at Tucson High and she was going to our rival, which was Pueblo. Her aunt lived down the street from us. I lived on Waverly Street at Sugar Hill.
“One day, I was out in the yard. I knew her aunt and I saw them come by in a car. I was like, ‘That’s that girl who I used to try to see.’ That’s how I started going around with her. … After Tucson High, I went to Phoenix College and I later found out her family was going to move to Los Angeles. The only way I could keep her was to marry her, so we got married.”
Don was a member of state championship teams in basketball and baseball at Tucson High. He was a catcher and outfielder who furthered his career at Phoenix College after graduating in 1962.
While with the Badgers, he was a teammate of Eddie Leon, who was a year behind him. Leon went on to be a star infielder at Arizona who was drafted in the first round by Cleveland in 1965 and Minnesota in 1966 and finally signed with Cleveland after the Indians drafted him in the second round after his senior season with the Wildcats in 1967.
“Eddie and I are good friends. As a matter of fact, Eddie and our old teammate at Tucson, Jesus Pesqueira, we all go to Angels games because (owner) Arte Moreno went to high school with us,” Don said. “When we need tickets, we call him and he gets us seats right beside him.”
Don had the opportunity to be a rival of Leon at Arizona State. Bobby Winkles, the Sun Devils’ coach, offered him a scholarship after Don and Pesqueira were part of the Phoenix College team that won a national championship in 1965.
It turned out the championship game on June 2, 1965, at Grand Junction, Colo., was the last game Don played.
“My dad got very sick and with my large family, I was the oldest one at home,” Don said. “That summer after we won the championship, I got a job with Sears in the warehouse. They liked me so they said, ‘Hey, you’re going to have a future, so we want you to work at our new store that was opening up.’
“I had a scholarship offer from ASU but I couldn’t go back to school because I had to go to work and support the family. I never did go back.”
The Rev. Joy Bacon of the Mt. Olive Church of God in Christ passed away at age 50 on Jan. 20, 1967. Mt. Olive later became the Bacon Memorial Church of God in Christ and is now known as the Trinity Hope Church of God in Christ.
One year after his dad’s passing, Don became a father himself with Shawn’s birth.
Don worked with Sears for 35 years until 2000, well after his three kids graduated from Sahuaro. He first met Sahuaro girls basketball coach Steve Botkin when they worked at Sears more than 30 years ago. Botkin worked in the warehouse and Don in appliances when Botkin attended Arizona after graduating in the same class as Shawn at Sahuaro in 1986.
“His sons were amazing football players,” Botkin said. “I remember going to football games at Sahuaro just to watch them play and I was amazed. We had a great relationship back in the late 1980’s. Over time, it’s gotten stronger and stronger. He’s one of my closest and dearest friends for sure.
“He’s told me numerous times, ‘You know coach, I was thinking about retiring and one of the main reasons I’ve stayed is I know what this school means to you and it means the same to me.'”
Don became part of the Sahuaro family when his daughter started to attend the school and was welcomed by softball coach Billy Lopez as an assistant. When his sons played football for the Cougars between 1987 to 1994, he served as an assistant under Howard Breinig.
When Don retired from Sears, he was approached by the late Joan Richardson, then the principal at Sahuaro to become the school’s dropout prevention specialist. Richardson received favorable reports from Lopez, members of the football staff and faculty about how Don related to kids. She also witnessed that connection.
The first thought Don had was not having a college degree because of what happened to his dad when he was about to attend ASU.
“I told her, ‘Well, I let all my (academic) stuff go bad. I’m not gonna go back to school to renew all that stuff,'” Don said. “She told me, “No, I’m gonna rewrite it so you can do this job.'”
Don held that dropout prevention specialist position not only at Sahuaro but also Sabino and Santa Rita for 15 years.
“I remember once that our dropout rate was less than 1 percent,” said Botkin, who has coached the last 19 years at Sahuaro and has served as the athletic director since 2017-18. “It was crazy. One year, 99.8 percent of our students graduated and stayed in school over a four-year period. It was nuts. We didn’t lose kids.
“He would go to their houses to make sure they were okay and figure out why they weren’t going to school and come up with a plan for them.”
Growing up in a large family with very modest means, a son of a minister and grandson of farm laborers, Don is not one who lived a life with excuses. His mom stressed values and integrity and getting ahead for the good of all with a strong work ethic.
When dealing with kids, Don has carried on those ideals of high expectations achieved through sincerity, diligence, kindness and faith. Botkin says he is stern and endearing at the same time.
“I remember a mom telling me one time about her daughter who was a good student and she met this guy and he drug her into nowhere,” Don said. “Finally, one day, the mom said, ‘Coach Bacon, what did you tell Amanda? She got rid of this mood that she had and she is doing so well in school.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s between me and Amanda. As long as she is doing well, let’s just let it go at that.’
“Things like that make me feel good. I want to reach the next kid.”
Don’s impact goes beyond the students at Sahuaro and his own kids and nine grandchildren.
“Through sports, parents and coaches would meet me, and get with me to turn kids around,” Don said. “The coach at Cholla, we were out there playing them one day and he said, ‘Coach Bacon, after the game can you just talk to my kids and let them know what it takes to be a winner?’ I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to talk with your kids?’ He said, ‘Yes sir.'”
Don remains at Sahuaro at 77 years old volunteering his time as an assistant coach with the softball team, serving as the equipment manager for the football team and helping Botkin with the girls basketball team home and away as a positive reinforcement.
Opportunities to become the softball head coach at Sahuaro have developed in the past but he is content with being at more of a personal level with the students as an assistant.
He was inducted into the Sahuaro Hall of Fame in 2003 because of his influence on kids.
“He is super supportive and tries to go to every game,” said Lisa Moore, mom of high-profile basketball player Alyssa Brown. “If he can’t, he will text throughout the game for updates, even when he was out of state. He’s really a great guy. We love him.”
Don has stressed academics to Brown and teammate Lily Watson since they were trying to get acclimated to high school as freshmen two years ago. They are now both honor students with visions of successful college careers academically as they enter their senior years.
He has a gift of being able to reach kids despite being almost 60 years their elder.
“The softball players, I talk to them as if they are my daughters,” Don said. “If they need discipline, then I will discipline them and I’ll tell them what they need to do. I tell them, ‘If you can’t do this, you know, maybe you shouldn’t be in the program. This is what I’m looking for.’
“For a football player, it’s a different thing because I call those guys knuckleheads and knotheads. Knuckleheads is one thing and knotheads is another thing. They all understand that. They just believe in me.”
Many students ask him for letter of recommendations for scholarships even though he is frank with some of them, telling them he will stay honest in the letter. “I don’t put something there that’s not supposed to be,” he said.
He is a firm believer in senior catcher Izzabela Goerke, who is bound for Grand Canyon University. She recently came to him for a recommendation letter for Sahuaro’s Dick McConnell Scholarship Award. She earned a $774 scholarship signifying each game the late basketball coach won in his career.
Don also motivates the athletes physically, often taking part in running the mile with them despite his age. He has a daily routine waking up at 6 a.m. to jog at least a mile. That activity strengthens his ability to perform various manual labor jobs around Sahuaro, helping to maintain the softball and football fields.
He volunteers about three to four hours daily during the school year assisting the groundskeepers.
“One of the first things I did when I was hired as the athletic director (in 2017) is I met Don at Home Depot and we bought a weed wacker,” Botkin said. “He said, ‘I’ll start cleaning.’ He mulled retirement previously but he told me, ‘After they hired you, I wanted to get this school back to the grounds that we all can respect and what we were used to in the past.'”
Don maintains the softball field on his own — “I don’t want anybody else doing that softball field but me,” he said — and Botkin boasts it is one of the best fields in Arizona. Don takes scissors and clips with him to trim the grass around the infield. He is that detailed.
He also helps stripe the football field the day of the games. He can also be seen off Camino Seco mowing the grass in front of the school.
The COVID-19 pandemic made him “stir crazy,” he said because he was not able to enter school grounds with school being closed.
“He called me the other day and asked if I needed any yard work done at my house,” Botkin said with a laugh. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to put you to work at my house.’ He just misses being around the school and around people.”
The anxiety made him want to visit Shawn and Omar and his grandkids earlier than usual. Instead of waiting until June as in past years, he boarded a plane to Colorado Springs last Friday.
He plans to stay there until July 11 unless a call is made that football equipment must be prepared or helmets have to be sized.
Don wants to be part of the process and will show up at Sahuaro on a moment’s notice. That’s his persona: always wanting to be there to make sure everything is close to perfect. His work is for the common good.
He and six of his siblings continue to carry out the will of their parents Joy Sr. and Lillie to build hope especially in the toughest of times, from moving to Tucson in the midst of civil-rights movement to now with the pandemic claiming Marshall’s life on Saturday.
Marshall joins Homer, Forest and Larry as Don’s siblings who have passed away. Joy Jr., Jay, Tommy Charles, Lela, Eva and Delphine remain with Don on earth.
“Think of all the grandkids and the cousins, not only our family but also the Robinsons, who are Bacons, too. Leslie Robinson had 13 kids himself,” Don said. “That’s a lot of support right there.”
The mark of Joy Sr. and Lillie has now been passed to three generations.
“My dad influences me by just being in his presence. In fact, I think he influences anyone that really spends time with him,” Omar said. “What do I mean by that? I challenge my athletes and clients to chase greatness in everything they pursue.
“When I think about it, it’s exactly what my dad taught my brother and I from a very young age. Perfection is what I think fuels him. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, taking care of the lawn, catching the football with your hands versus your body, or simply being on time. Just knowing that alone drives me to be on point when I’m around him and when I’m not.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.