John F. “Jay” Bonfatti left us five years ago and the loss still stings, especially this time of year.
Each August for the past 33 years, a motley collection of football “experts” have gotten together for the annual draft in a fantasy league known as the NVFL — the National Vicarious Football League.
For about 25 of those years, Jay was the league’s most cherished member. Four days after the 2008 draft (photo above), he died in his sleep at age 52.
Jay’s good cheer, humor and pure love of life were genuine and infectious.
A photo op with boxing promoter Don King? Why not? The photo became Jay’s holiday card that year, although there’s some debate as to whether it read, “Merry Christmas from the King and I” or “Merry Christmas from a couple of heavyweights.”
Jay’s voice was deep and distinctive, with a touch of his native New England. He loved the Red Sox, of course, and all else Boston.
Jay’s signature greeting when he arrived (always late) to our August football draft, usually with a fat stogie in one hand, was: “Gentlemen! … And I use that term loosely.”
We knew it was coming, and it never got old.
Jay was always the funniest guy in the room, but not because he was trying hard at it. He was a natural ham, quick-witted, and knew how to pick his spots. Trash talk? Forget it; you’d lose, and end up laughing at his creative retorts.
As large as Jay was, he didn’t laugh as much as giggle. But he could also be loud — very loud.
Once, in the middle of a Super Bowl Sunday brunch in a crowded hotel banquet room, Jay loudly offered his opinion of what should be done to a couple of football buddies who hadn’t shown up.
What Jay said, at top volume, was so hilariously and outrageously inappropriate (Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack” times 10) that our table completely lost it; others within earshot were rightfully appalled, judging by the sound of silverware dropping onto plates, a tale that Jay’s friend Peter Cushley loves to retell.
Except for the parents with impressionable young children that day, Jay’s presence always made everyone genuinely happier.
He was indeed the life of any party, with one exception — the ill-advised “victory party” he threw before Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when his beloved Red Sox let certain victory slip away in heartbreaking fashion. The tragedy is recounted vividly in “The JuJu Rules,” the wonderful memoir by Hart Seely (Yankee fan, by the way).
Jay spent many years working for the Associated Press in Buffalo, NY, and he always answered the phone with an authoritative, “AP Buffalo, Bonfatti.” He was beloved by co-workers and friends there, as well as in Syracuse and Philadelphia.
For three years Jay shared a house in Syracuse with John Wisniewski, a friend and newspaper colleague.
“Two things impressed me the most,” John said. “Number one. No matter what sadness was going on in his life, he never showed it, talked about it, dwelled on it or pleaded for comfort. He was the strong shoulder for everyone else.
“Number two. He loved to cook. New England corn chowder was his favorite. And it was the best. … We threw the best house parties and we threw them often. Jay was the most gracious host and always the center of attention.”
As a sports fan and longtime sports reporter, Jay relished the competition of the NVFL, even though it’s just a fantasy league. Jay showed his humor by naming his imaginary team “The Clammy Glandsmen” from Flin Flon, Manitoba. He gave his team a mascot, Raoul the Peeing Clam. He designed a logo, and put out regular press releases.
Another passion was music. For many years, Jay undertook a painstaking, expensive labor of love for, I’d guess, more than 100 of his closest friends. He carefully selected and assembled dozens of songs on a CD, had it professionally produced, and sent it out every year as a Christmas present.
He also gave custom-made CDs for other reasons.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, Jay made a CD he called the ‘Donna mix’ so I could listen to it during chemotherapy,” Donna Bruch wrote after Jay’s death in 2008. “I am so happy his friends in Syracuse saw him (at the draft). … He was such a kind, sweet soul and he will be greatly missed.”
Donna’s husband, Dave Bruch, is commissioner of the NVFL. Donna always made sure Jay was well fed at the annual draft — she always made his favorite, bon-bons, and sent him a batch every Christmas as she awaited his holiday CD.
Jay’s 2005 holiday CD was particularly memorable. It was the year Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, so the theme of Jay’s CD was New Orleans jazz. As always, he found the most eclectic array of songs and dedicated it to the city and its recovery.
On the liner notes — yes, Jay even included the song titles and performers — he wrote: “Listen, feel the rhythms, and know that New Orleans will rise to its feet and second-line strut again … in the spirit of the season, laissez les bon temps rouler!”
(“Let the good times roll!” — a phrase that fit Jay as well.)
We miss you too, Jay. And your old football friends will gather for the draft on Saturday, raise a toast to you and fight it out again for the coveted trophy that bears your name. And, in your honor, we’re asking Donna to make bon-bons.