DADE CITY — She was a single mom with two kids, two jobs and one hope she couldn’t suppress. On that winter night in 1988, the part-time college student and full-time frazzled parent shut her eyes and opened her soul.
“When I went to bed, I said a prayer and I was like, ‘Please Lord, let me find the right person in my life to be a good husband, a good father, a good person,’” Sheri Grayling recalled. “‘Please let me find that right person.’”
Twenty-four hours later, the answer arrived, bearing a British accent, shy demeanor and cherubic face. Grayling, enjoying a rare night out with another single mom, had noticed the 20-something stranger staring at her from across the small nightclub. When he finally mustered the nerve to approach her, they talked, then danced. Then they talked and danced some more.
The music ultimately stopped. Their blissful waltz lasted more than 35 years. Sheri’s prince turned out to be a member of the British Army’s special forces. Barry Grayling, a decorated soldier who happened to be in Florida enjoying some R&R and parachuting with pals, ultimately chose to leave his military career and married Sheri in the front yard of her rural Zephyrhills home less than two years later.
“We were together all the time,” Sheri said Wednesday, a tear streaming down her right cheek. “And it was a love story.”
In time, Sheri would have to share her soulmate with her community. Barry ultimately betrothed himself to Pasco High, where his wife worked as a special education teacher. For nearly a quarter-century, he navigated the school grounds as a stern-but-fair discipline assistant and coached several Pirates sports teams.
Soccer was his true passion, but he also coached track, cross country and girls tennis at various points. He evolved into a campus fixture, as principled as he was popular. You could innocently tease Mr. Grayling, just never test him.
“He was just a good person all-around,” said Jose “Joe” Montelongo, a 2008 Pasco graduate whose 143 career goals remains a Pirates boys soccer record. “He always made sure everyone was doing right. If you were doing wrong, he’d get you straight. He’d always worry about you, he was a caring person. He loved what he did for Pasco High and for the soccer program.”
On Saturday, the school and city bid him a formal farewell. Grayling’s final battle, waged valiantly against a ruthless brain tumor, ended Dec. 10. His celebration of life, before roughly 300 congregants inside the Pirates’ gymnasium, occurred two days before his 61st birthday and a day before what would’ve been he and Sheri’s 34th wedding anniversary.
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The ceremony, replete with an honor guard, befitted his military background and British heritage. Professional bagpiper William Howard performed “Amazing Grace” at the conclusion. Paul Grayling, the oldest of four Grayling brothers (Barry was second-oldest), described his younger sibling as stubborn and aggressive as a youth, much like his father John.
Yet dad and son, Paul said, both were like a chocolate eclair: “a hard exterior, but inside was a soft interior, full of love.”
Dangling from three different necklaces worn by Sheri were a lock of his hair (encased in a golden bullet), his dog tags and her wedding ring. While peers and students saw Grayling administer a daily curriculum of tough love, she got the tender version — the sentimentalist who happened to be a soldier.
Before advancing to the Pathfinder Platoon, a special-forces unit for the 16 Air Assault Brigade of the British Army, he served in the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment. During the Falklands War in 1982 (when Argentina invaded two British-dependent territories in the South Atlantic), Private Grayling was serving on a machine-gun team when the enemy opened heavy fire.
He and a lance corporal, Gary Bingley, found themselves only meters from the enemy. They returned fire and ultimately suppressed the advance, but not before the corporal was killed. Grayling avoided a serious wound — or worse — when a bullet struck a water canteen attached to his hip, according to Sheri. For his bravery, Queen Elizabeth pinned him with the Gallantry Medal.
On their first date, Sheri saw gallantry in an entirely different form.
After their initial encounter, they made plans to meet for lunch the following day at the Zephyrhills Village Inn. Sheri was unable to find a babysitter, so Grayling suggested she bring along her children — ages 10 and 2.
“They had a real Southern woman working in there,” Sheri recalled. “My daughter was 2 years old, and (the waitress) said, ‘Tell daddy you want some french fries.’ And this was the first time he had been with her, and I thought, ‘Oh ,my God.’ And he just reached over and handed her a fry just like he was daddy. I fell in love with him right that moment.”
Grayling eventually became the dad to Sheri’s kids, the only one they ever knew, she insists. Over the next three decades, he became a surrogate father of sorts to many others, using the sport of the season — cross country, tennis, soccer — to provide structure, direction, discipline and encouragement.
In one 14-year span, his Pirates boys soccer teams reached the playoffs 10 times. Pirates girls track star Alfreda Steele won state titles (long jump, 100 meters) on his watch.
“He loved all of his players,” former Pasco principal Pat Reedy told Saturday’s audience. “Yeah, he could chew a chunk out of your backside, but he did it with love because he knew you could do better, and he expected you to do better.”
On Nov. 17, current Pirates soccer coach Daryl Nobles staged a “Barry Grayling Night” at W.F. Edwards Stadium. The crowd of roughly 150 included dozens of his former players and their families, as well as co-workers and relatives. Confined to a wheelchair and wracked with pain, Grayling requested the microphone, and broke down a couple of times during a brief address to the audience.
“Don’t give (Nobles) a hard time,” he told the current players in attendance. “Or I’ll come back with a left and a right.”
Twenty-three days later, he was gone. Sheri lost her soulmate. Pasco High lost part of its soul.
“He was a Pasco guy,” Nobles said. “Through and through.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls