Johnny Grube calls himself Monsignor Farrell's No. 1 sports fan, but he's really much more than that. In a broader human sense, Grube means the world to the Lions and the school community at large.
"I think Johnny brings out the best in people," explained athletic director and football coach Anthony Garofalo. "He's an amazing guy. I don't think there's a bad bone in his body."
Grube celebrated his 60th birthday last weekend with a surprise party at the LiGreci's Staaten in West Brighton, an appropriate spot considering he's spent most of his life near the Forest Avenue businesses, family and friends that represent home.
For the past two decades, Johnny Grube has been a fixture at the Oakwood school, particularly at football, basketball and baseball games. He's always perched on or near the Farrell team benches, proudly wearing the Lions' apparel that he has long treasured.
"He's definitely a part of the Farrell family," said principal Monsignor Edmund Whalen. "He's a gentle soul and the guys really look out for him. There's a genuine feeling here for Johnny."
Grube was considered a special-needs youngster long before education caught up with that term. He has a ready smile and a warm personality and can light up a room when interacting with people.
"He's a survivor," said one family friend. "He's kind of a kid forever, but his memory is sharp. He can tell you every single bus you need to take to get you anywhere on Staten Island, for example. Not many kids can do that."
St. Peter's football coach Mark DeCristoforo is Grube's cousin (DeCristoforo's grandmother and Johnny's mother were sisters), and they became fast friends despite the age difference. When the young football coach landed an assistant coaching position at Farrell in 1998 while still a Wagner College undergraduate, he brought Grube to a late-summer practice.
Farrell head coach Ben Sarullo took a liking to the visitor and asked if he'd be interested in helping out as a team manager.
"That Monday he came to practice and was handing out water, things like that," said DeCristoforo, who also was raised in West Brighton. "Johnny was so excited to be involved with football and I don't think he's missed a day since."
DeCristoforo would drive Grube everywhere and could rest assured that his loyal companion would be punctual.
"I was still in college and living at home, and Johnny would ring the doorbell at about 7 every Saturday morning," he recalled. "We started to have a few night games back then and he didn't really know what time the game would begin. He just knew I'd be going and he'd be coming with me. So sometimes he'd wake my dad up really early for a 7 p.m. game."
Grube's role gradually expanded and soon he was a regular at Friday night team dinners at Pal Joey's. DeCristoforo began teaching at Farrell and Johnny tagged along and was assigned odd jobs, like sweeping the halls. He currently serves as lunchroom monitor two days a week and takes great pride in his responsibilities.
"I love Monsignor Farrell," he said. "I do call myself the No. 1 fan."
"Johnny's the man," said senior basketball forward Tom Granello. "He's always happy and always cheering for the Lions. He's really like one our brothers. We always make him laugh and he enjoys getting us to laugh with him. Everyone thinks he's a coach and he definitely thinks he is the coach."
Granello has known Grube since he was a pre-schooler because of their mutual association with St. Teresa's parish and particularly Grube's brother-in-law Bob Althoff, who served as CYO director. Grube has two brothers and two sisters and numerous nieces and nephews from a sports-minded extended family that keeps him busy when not occupied at Farrell.
Granello's parents, Thomas and Gina, have long been friends who often provide the rides that DeCristoforo, who now is married with four young children, might not always be available to provide.
"I can't emphasize enough how awesome Farrell and so many people have been over the years," said DeCristoforo. "They've never turned their backs on him and he's kind of entrenched and part of the culture there. Everybody who meets Johnny loves him."
Of course, he also often has some explaining to do when showing up on Forest Avenue in the heart of St. Peter's Eagles country wearing Farrell clothing.
"They bust his chops pretty good over that," said the coach.
Grube threw a scare into Monsignor Farrell when he was hospitalized a couple of years ago with a serious stomach ailment and ulcers.
"He was in tough shape in the hospital and I remember our student-athletes were really shaken up," said Monsignor Whalen. "We asked everyone to remember him in their prayers and our basketball team visited him in the hospital on Christmas Day."
Grube was back on his feet in due time, however, and back to work with his beloved Lions.
The principal went on to say that Farrell has long been committed to special-needs issues.
"One of our biggest service clubs is Special Olympics," he said. "Our guys are very aware of the needs. We partner with the Seton Foundation and others. It's a big part of who we are as a school."
Farrell wouldn't be the same place without Johnny Grube, that's for certain.
"He's a fabric of this place," said Whalen. "He's our special-needs brother."