Arizona Loses One Of Athletes' Biggest Fans

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Barry Sollenberger -- a man who has been called "a gift to kids" --as found dead from an apparent heart attack June 23 at his apartment near Papago Park in Scottsdale.

For the past six years, Sollenberger, 60, has been the Arizona Interscholastic Association media relations director. It was AIA executive director Harold Slemmer who tagged him a gift for what he contributed to the state's high school athletes.

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Phoenix Metro Football was one of the prep publications authored by Barry Sollenberger.

"Barry's contribution has been beyond measure. His life has been a gift to those involved in high school sports," Slemmer said.

In prep athletic circles, Sollenberger is acknowledged as the state's sports historian and for the past 30 years published the "Phoenix Metro Football" magazine as well as record books in several sports.

Only two days before Sollenberger's death, I received a handwritten note from him asking me to remind Payson High School football coach Jerry Rhoades that his 2005 season preview for the magazine was due.

Each summer, when Arizona Football reached store shelves, coaches and players from around the state rushed to buy the magazine to see who Sollenberger had picked for his "Friday Night Heroes" or "Top-10 teams."

As the guru of Arizona High School sports, Sollenberger was able to recite sports facts and history without hesitation.

In the early 1990s, I was talking with Sollenberger about then-Payson High School football player Jon Gunzel.

Sollenberger paused, then asked, "is he the son of Steve Gunzel?"

I replied yes, and without hesitation Sollenberger said "Steve threw the discus 186 feet in 1969 for Tucson Palo Verde."

I later checked the record books and Sollenberger's recollection was right on target.

Sollenberger, a track and field standout at Arcadia High School in the early 1960s, had a special fondness for prep football and was known to visit three and four prep games each Friday night of the fall season.

In 1991, he also was on the sidelines of a 1991 Payson High School football game against Dysart.

Apparently, he took an instant liking to Bo Althoff and his hard-nosed style of play.

Immediately after the game, he approached me and asked Bo's name and whether he was going to play football collegiately.

"No," I said. "He likes pole vaulting too much. That's what he'll do in college."

More than a decade later at a high school state tournament basketball game in America West Arena, Sollenberger and I struck up a short conversation..

Out of the blue, he said, "Bo was sure a fine safety. He could have played D-1."

It was that type of instant sports recall and fondness for high school athletics that made Sollenberger a legend among the state's coaches and athletes.

He also had an amazing curiosity about small-town sports history and must have spent most of his waking hours researching a book he was going to write about the past 100 years of Arizona high school football.

He was never able to complete the book he worked on for about 10 years.

A few years ago, I received a late-night phone call from him wanting to know more about Pine High School. He asked if the mascot had been a buffalo and if the school had a football team.

"I didn't even know Pine ever had a high school," I replied.

I promised Sollenberger that I would publish a request in this column asking readers for information about the high school.

Sure enough, longtime Rim country residents responded with more than enough history which I forwarded to Sollenberger.

Around the state, Sollenberger is being remembered by high school coaches, former athletes, parents and fans as one of the most influential persons in high school sports.

A memorial service will be held in early August once high school coaches and players return from vacations.

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