Ralph Berrios had things to do and cancer wasn’t going to keep him from doing them.
Berrios, a Southview High School graduate and a longtime assistant basketball coach for the school, lost his battle with the disease Sunday at age 54, but not before making sure he reached several personal milestones.
“There were three things he wanted to accomplish,” said Valerie Stark, wife of the late Larry Stark, Berrios’ coach, mentor and father figure. “Seeing Evan (his son) play his senior year at Clearview — and he walked out on the floor with him (on Senior Night). His next goal was he wanted to see him play baseball and walk out with him on Senior Night. He did that.
“The last one was graduation (May 30 at the Palace Civic Center) and he was in the hospital when the commencement was but we had our FaceTime with him so he got to see him walk on stage and get his diploma. There were three things he wanted to do and he made sure he did that.”
Evan, in fact, paid a visit to his dad in the hospital after graduation — cap and gown included. It made the day for all the nurses and staff and, of course, Ralph.
“All that he went through with his dad, he was at every practice,” Clearview basketball coach John Szalay said of Evan. “He gave 100 percent even though it had to be real, real tough.
“Ralph, even though he was very knowledgeable about basketball, he never would question anything that we did. He was always supportive, very friendly. Always gave every kid recognition as they’d come through into the locker room. He kind of sat there at the end (of the gym) where we’d walk through. They’d all stop and see him.”
Stark, a Hall of Fame basketball and tennis coach at Southview, and Berrios were inseparable as coaches for nearly 30 years. Berrios played for Stark before graduating in 1982 and later became an assistant with him at Southview. Stark died in 2015.
“He came over to our house one night,” Valerie said. “He asked Larry was there any possible way that he could become part of the coaching staff. Larry never hesitated.
“(Ralph) was thrilled. They had such great times. I could talk for days on them reminiscing about games and experiences we had. He loved being a part of the staff.”
After Stark retired as a coach, Berrios became the head basketball coach at Lorain County Community College and invited Stark to join him as an assistant. Berrios also assisted at Brookside and coached several youth baseball teams in Lorain. He was inducted into the Lorain County Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame this spring.
“He applied for that job at the college and then he got it,” Valerie said. “Just hours after that our phone was ringing off the hook.
“He asked Larry to help out as an assistant and although Larry wasn’t sure he wanted to do it at first, Ralph lured him into the position.”
Berrios grew up in a tough neighborhood in South Lorain. Lettering three years in basketball and four years in baseball helped keep him out of trouble.
“Ralph was a tough kid,” said Hondo Rodriguez, a lifelong friend and teammate. “He also was very loving and caring. When all the other kids were getting bigger and taller — especially in high school — we didn’t seem to be getting bigger and taller. Here’s Ralph, he’s probably about 5-foot-11, and he was like (Charles) Barkley before Barkley. He always seemed to get the rebound, always seemed to get the right position. He was a scrapper.”
“The year before (graduation), we had that great team in ’81,” said Jeff Perkins, a close friend and classmate of Ralph’s. “Barry Lamar, Gilbert Ortiz — we went to the regional finals. The very next year, Ralph was our center. He was just so smooth and it didn’t bother him to be amongst the big guys.”
Stark and Southview’s baseball coach Bill Gast took Berrios under their wings.
“Ralph never had a father growing up at all,” Valerie said. “Especially at Southview, Larry was a father figure for a lot of boys over there. Ralph played hard, with heart. He was on the ’81 team that did real well. In ’82, I don’t even know if they were .500 but those kids all had big hearts. Larry became his father figure besides being his mentor. Eventually, they became best friends.”
Berrios is survived by his wife of 18 years, Tina, Evan and daughter Nevaeh at home, along with sons Tyler Natal of Tampa, Fla., and Mikey Hernandez of Elyria.
His brother, Nandi Cruz, was a three-sport star at Southview in the mid-1980s. He was outstanding in football and basketball but made his mark in baseball. Cruz was drafted and played in the White Sox organization for several years.
Cruz considered Berrios a huge influence.
“He was a gentle giant,” Cruz said. “He molded me into the guy I am today. He was my mentor. He was my hero. I looked up to Ralph like he was my father. He did a lot for me. Now that he’s gone, I can say what a true person he was that inspired us. The youth that he’s touched — all the people he’s touched. Words just can’t explain how my brother was.”
One of the last conversations Valerie Stark had with Berrios came just prior to Evan’s graduation.
“He said, ‘Coach is calling me,’” Valerie recalled. “I told him, ‘Don’t answer right away. Just let him wait a little bit. Probably needs a good assistant up there right now but you don’t have to take that call right away.’
“Just after graduation he told me, ‘It’s time.’ That was Wednesday. By Sunday he was gone.”