Abdul Ford-Bey knew how to spot diamonds in the rough.
Throughout his legendary coaching career in the Phoenixville area, Ford-Bey oftentimes passed up the most talented, most polished players and elected to pick the ones that he wanted to work with and help improve their game.
“Boy, he had a lot of people scratching their heads during those drafts,” recalled lifelong friend Rick Martin with a laugh. “They’d laugh and say, ‘Why in the world is he taking this kid?’ But he knew what he was doing.
“He truly was one in a million.”
That was Abdul Ford-Bey, the truest diamond in the rough there was to so many on the years in the Phoenixville community.
The Phoenixville area lost a youth coaching legend earlier this week when lifelong resident Ford-Bey died on July 23 at Manor Care in Pottstown. He was 70 years old.
Born in Phoenixville on October 3, 1947, he was the son of the late James D. and Julia (Travis-Bey) Ford-Bey.
He graduated from Phoenixville Area High School and served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“Ab,” as he was known by many in the community, was a familiar face both in the stands and along the sidelines at virtually all Phoenixville sporting events through the years.
He was active in the Phoenixville Marion Youth Club football as well as the Phoenixville Youth Babe Ruth League (PYBRL) baseball and softball programs.
In April of 2012, the girls softball field at Vic Marosek Park was named in honor of Ford-Bey, who had spent nearly 40 years of his life as part of the PYBRL. He was also elected into the Phoenixville Area School District Hall of Fame in 2014.
Of all the thousands of athletes he coached during his life, the most impressive was by far Mike Piazza.
Ford-Bey was Piazza’s first manager at the helm of the A’s in Phoenixville Little League, the Hall of Fame catcher noted in his autobiography ‘Long Shot.’ By coincidence, the final team Piazza played for during his 16-year career in Major League Baseball was the Oakland A’s.
“Very sad to hear of the passing of Abdul Ford-Bey, my first little league coach and Phoenixville legend,” Piazza said via Twitter on Thursday. “Dedicated his life to the Youth of P-ville. Taught me the values of discipline, dedication, and teamwork. Rest In Peace Ab.”
In addition to the time he spent on the diamond and along the football sidelines, Ford-Bey could be found at many field hockey and basketball games as a faithful spectator for the Phantoms.
He was a coach, basketball referee, public address announcer and scorekeeper during his many years of involvement with Phoenixville athletics. He also assisted regularly on the chain crew during football games.
His impact on the Phoenixville community surely won’t be forgotten.
Some of Dave Devlin’s first run-ins with Ford-Bey still remain his most memorable, even decades later.
Devlin, a Phoenixville native who grew up in the mid-60’s, can still recall car rides to and from practice with his father. So many times on the way to the fields or courts, his father would pull over and pick up a familiar face walking along the side of the road.
“He walked everywhere he went,” recalled Devlin of Ford-Bey. “My father would always pick him up and the three of us would talk and laugh all the way to practice. Every time I got out to leave the car, he’d call out my last name, ‘Hey Devlin, make sure you have fun today!’ That was every time.”
As the years went on and new players cycled through Phoenixville’s youth programs, Ford-Bey always seemed to find a ride to practice, although he wasn’t one to stand along the side of the road with his thumb out.
“It seemed like every year, there was some father or mother who would see him walking and would pick him up,” added Devlin. “People in the community respected him and knew him for what he did and who he was. I think that really speaks to the respect that the people in the town had for him. Everyone knew he didn’t have a car. But if someone saw him, they’d stop the car and pick him up.”
Later in his life, an old friend proved to be just the pick me up Ford-Bey would need.
Shortly after Ford-Bey suffered a stroke in 2012 — one that would eventually force him into a wheelchair — Ford-Bey was reconnected with an old friend in Martin.
“We did everything together,” said Martin, whom Ford-Bey referred to as his ‘Brother from another Mother.’ “We would go to parades, music shows, local sports games, car shows — although he was never interested in cars because he never drove. But everywhere we went, he was a celebrity.
“No matter where we went, everybody knew Abdul Ford-Bey. A lot of people just called him ‘Coach’. He was a hometown hero, he meant so much to so many people.”
In the days that followed his death, plenty of tributes have flowed from all over reflecting on the legendary youth coach’s impact on the area:
• “My town of Phoenixville lost a kind man who selflessly cared about us all,” ESPN anchor and Phoenixville High School grad Kevin Negandhi wrote on Instagram. “But we gained so much with the many moments Abdul Ford-Bey shared with us. So many stories. So many laughs. So many lessons. Generation to generation, he touched anyone and everyone that played sports in Phoenixville for decades. I remember growing up how I could not wait to have Ab as my coach. I’ll miss that distinct voice telling me to use my left hand in a layup line or whistling a foul with his finger pointing, ‘No, Right there!’ Rest In Peace, Ab. We were all so lucky to call you a coach and friend, but in reality, you were a part of our family.”
• “Abdul was the first coach I met in the area when I became the head girls (basketball) coach at Owen J. Roberts at 22 years old,” Gwynedd Mercy University men’s head basketball coach John Baron wrote, noting that Ford-Bey was dedicated to his athletes’ improvement. “He was an ‘AAU coach’ before AAU was popular. Now as a 20 year college mens head coach, I look back and regret not thanking him in person for being way, way ahead of his time and for being a special part of the lives of many athletes in the area. Donating your time is often much more valuable than donating money.”
• “Abdul was my first Little League coach,” wrote Piazza. “He taught us discipline, dedication and teamwork. I have often thought of him throughout my career and life. The value of a life is the impact and inspiration you have on others. I’m sure all that knew him know this couldn’t be more true.”
• “I don’t know of anyone in Phoenixville that had more of an influence or impact in the lives of our kids when it came to sports,” said Dave Dvorak. “He followed everyone of them from youth sports, through middle and high school and for many, through college. Many of the famous people in this world are known only by their first names. In this town, all you had to hear was the name Abdul, and there was no doubt who you were talking about. Phoenixville youth sports will never be the same.”