John ‘Jay’ Bonfatti — five years gone, you still make us smile

Jay Bonfatti, upper right corner, at the 2008 National Vicarious Football League draft. Jay died in his sleep four days later.

Jay Bonfatti, right upper corner, at the 2008 National Vicarious Football League draft. Jay died in his sleep four days later. The trophy held by Ben Contegni was named in honor of Jay the following year.

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 holiday card one year: "Merry Christmas from a couple of heavyweights"

Jay’s holiday card, circa mid-1980s

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 Bonfatti at ease.

Jay Bonfatti at ease.

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.

When Jay died, they wrote many moving tributes. His colleagues in Buffalo formed a Newspaper Guild Bonfatti Cleanup Team and gather annually to clean up trash in the city.

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.

A typical press release from the Clammy Glandsmen. Here, Jay announced the hiring of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, as the team's artistic director.

A typical press release from the Clammy Glandsmen. Here, Jay announced the hiring of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, as the team’s artistic director.

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.)

Jay Bonfatti TrophyJay then added a tribute to his sister-in-law, who died of cancer at age 36: “This CD is dedicated to Susan (Mahony) Bonfatti. We miss you Susie.”

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.

Our 2009 football draft, the first one without Jay. The championship trophy bears his name.

Our 2009 football draft, the first one without Jay. The championship trophy bears his name.

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About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in fantasy football, Irish Investigations, music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to John ‘Jay’ Bonfatti — five years gone, you still make us smile

  1. Jim, a superb tribute!!!! I am sure he is getting a kick out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. markbialczak says:

    Oh, our dear Jay Bonfatti. Always quick with a quip, happy to give a compliment, glad to be your friend. You made folks in numerous cities clamor to call you their own. Miss your humor and good will. Thanks for the tribute to remind us again, Mr. McKeever.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amen. I still think of Jay quite often. I feel sad but I always end up laughing over something he said or did. That Bonfatti giggle, that Bonfatti face of pure glee – when you saw him at your door, you know plans for your night or your weekend, or maybe the next week, were no longer relevant. God, I miss that guy.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The Penguin says:

    OK, so this was about this time of year in ’81. I was ready to bolt from the ‘Cuse, heading West, young man, to the distant city of . . . Rochester. My lease was up, and I wasn’t scheduled to start my new job for a couple of weeks. The Wiz was either out of town, or had already moved out of the apartment over near the SU campus that he was sharing with Bonfatti. The fog of history has obscured the details. Anyway, Jay says, “Stay at my place, Steve-O.” So I did. I think we were both still working at the paper. Jay actually working, me just mailing it in as a short timer. We did a lot of damage in those two weeks. No big house parties, just hanging out. No public atrocities, just a bone or two and stumbling over to the Big Weiner, or the no-name gin mill next door, known colloquially by the student populace as “the left nut.” Later, I still cherish a visit to Bufontalo, the main event of which was an evening at the Canadian Ballet over in Fort Erie. You got a lot of bang for the buck with a US Twenty back in those days. Say no more. Five years? Sigh, and not just an ordinary sigh. We’re talking a Neil Kerr-sized sigh. The Christmas CD’s make me sad and happy at the same time. I have tried to honor his memory by making new friends in new places. But I miss him. A lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jay was a great guy. Gone too soon. Beautiful tribute, Jim, and now I know where I got a line that I often use with my students: (Jay’s) “Gentlemen! … And I use that term loosely.” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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