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Byrne Identity: Grandpa Joe Dies As Coach Harbaugh Seeks New Coaches

Posted Jan 17, 2014

Kevin Byrne offers some classic stories about ‘Grandpa Joe’ and suggests how you can honor him today.

Grandpa Joe Dies As Coach Harbaugh Seeks New Coaches 

John Harbaugh can grind with the best of them

He can be at his desk at midnight, back at 5 a.m. … And, he can do it over and over again for months at a time. 

He's attacking the hiring of some new coaches, especially the offensive coordinator, with his typical fervor. He has spent hours interviewing candidates, while initiating and receiving calls about these coaches. 

But, for a good portion of today, John was with his mom, Jackie, in Cleveland as they buried Jackie's father, Grandpa Joe. The head coach and his wife, Ingrid, were on a plane early this morning and joined family for a salute to Joe Cipiti, who passed away last Sunday at the age of 98. 

Grandpa Joe was born in St. Agata on the island of Sicily on the southern tip of Italy. He and his parents came to the United States in 1920 when Joe was 5 years old. He became a mechanic and then owned and operated the Cipiti Nursery for 35 years. 

Ravens players knew Grandpa Joe, who attended both games and practices through the years. 

"Grandpa Joe, look at you. You look better than your grandson, John," Jacoby Jones shouted at the delightful senior a year ago. 

Coach Harbaugh enjoyed his grandfather and went out of his way to let him taste the NFL life. And Harbs shared stories with the team about Grandpa Joe, giving updates to the team in December about his health as the feisty old man fought to stay alive. 

"They say Grandpa Joe wasn't supposed to make it through the night, but he stayed alive to watch us win today. He had not eaten for days, but woke up this morning, ate some food and wanted to see you play. He's not giving up, and neither are we," Harbaugh told the team after we beat the Lions in that memorable Monday night thriller. 

Harbs shared memories of visiting Grandpa Joe's nursery and fruit stand on Cleveland's east side when he and his younger brother, Jim, and sister, Joanie, would "drive a little tractor." One of the brothers – the one who wears the $8 khakis – might have driven over some newly-planted saplings. Not sure if Grandpa Joe ever discovered how those young trees met their demise. 

Grandpa Joe went to high school with some friends who joined Bugsy Siegel in the early development stage of the famed Las Vegas strip. They offered Joe an opportunity to buy a piece of land in Vegas. "Tell him about how we could all be rich if you bought the land on the strip for just a few dollars, Grandpa Joe," Coach Harbaugh said a few years ago on a Mr. Cipiti visit. Grandpa Joe smiled: "What was I going to do with some sand in Nevada?" 

Grandpa Joe Inspires Victory 

My favorite memory of Joe Cipiti came during the Ravens' visit to Cleveland during the 2012 season. John had a car bring Joe to the team hotel and brought him to the Saturday night meeting. These sessions are when the head coach delivers the "Knute Rockne" for the final inspiration before the next day's kickoff. 

"Grandpa Joe is here – Grandpa Joe Cipiti raise your hand. 97 years old," Harbs started the meeting. 

"Grandpa Joe, why are you way back there?" Another voice shouted out: "Vonta [Leach] kicked him out of his seat." 

Harbs smiled and looked at Vonta, who smiled back and said: "I sit in the same seat for these meetings." Jacoby then said loud enough for the whole room to hear: "Vonta, you made the man move out of his seat. You're going to hell." Everyone laughed. 

"Grandpa Joe, he's still going strong," Harbaugh said as he spoke to his players. "He got me thinking tonight as we were talking about life. He said to live long, you should eat red grapes and work every day. Brendon Ayanbadejo, you eat red grapes every day, right? 

"Do things the right way, good things come around for you, right?" the head coach continued. "Same thing with this football team, too. There are those who get things done. They find a way. Grandpa Joe did. The men in this room get things done the same way. And we will tomorrow against the Browns. Who leads the division?" 

Heard a couple of players say: "We do!"

"What's our first goal?" 

"Win the division." 

"Let's beat the Browns and win the division." 

The Ravens did just that the next day (Nov. 3) on a cold, windy, gray day along the banks of Lake Erie. We won, 25-15, for our 10th-consecutive win over Cleveland and our 11th-straight AFC North victory. 

The Owners’ Box 

Before the game, Grandpa Joe was in the locker room, and he was putting layers of clothes on. He planned to be on the sideline as "John's assistant" during the game. "Grandpa Joe, I think it's too cold for you to be out there for three hours. How about we find someplace warm for you to watch the game?" 

"I'll be alright," Joe said. "I live here." 

Team president Dick Cass invited Grandpa Joe to sit in the visiting owners' box. After the win, Mr. Cipiti joined the celebrating players. John asked him how he enjoyed the box. "Food was very good, and they had drinks, too," Grandpa Joe smiled and winked at his grandson. John laughed and said: "I love you Grandpa Joe." 

So today in honor of Grandpa Joe, maybe eat some red grapes, stay out of the cold, remember your grandparents – and, if they're alive, give them a call. 

Talk with you soon, 

Kevin

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