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Baseball: Former player details how Carbone made a difference

There was a time that Mike Florak’s hefty offensive figures mandated respect on the baseball field. But when that ability diminished, it was his coach — Ohio’s Joe Carbone — who became his greatest advocate.

Florak finished his degree and has made his mark as a coach after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal disorder that can cause a variety of painful symptoms and rapid weight loss. Florak gained and lost the same 40 pounds several times after being diagnosed with Crohn’s during his senior year.

Since graduating from OU in 1991 with a degree in journalism and his name plastered throughout the Bobcats baseball record book, Florak has been named the Presidents’ Athletic Conference coach of the year while coaching at Waynesburg College (Pa.), took Youngstown State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, led the Southern Ohio Copperheads to their best season ever in 2009 and wrote an autobiography.

The digestive system might be what causes him pain, but it’s easy to say that his heart sets him aside from the pack.

“I didn’t know that Mike suffered from Crohn’s and had it as bad as he did until after I was done playing,” said Josh Sorge, who played at Ohio while Florak was an assistant coach. “It was just something he never brought up. I think that’s a real testament to his character.”

Florak met Joe Carbone, a man that he would later consider one of his two idols — the other being ex-Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel — when he was a freshman at Ohio and Carbone was an assistant coach with the Buckeyes.

“What I liked the best was that he was all business,” Florak said. “He wanted to win and wanted you to get better. My first impression was, ‘Here’s a guy that takes it serious. I respect that.’ ”

But when the hearty ballplayer’s health went south three years later and Carbone was coaching his first of 24 seasons with the Bobcats, he became more than an authority figure — he became a friend.

About the time Florak started thinking about professional tryouts, he could barely get out of bed. It was none other than Carbone who referred him to a doctor that could correctly identify the mysterious symptoms as Crohn’s disease.

“There’s a small part of me where there was just something physically wrong with me,” Florak said. “I just knew it. I was just very weak and tired. I could barely swing the bat — it was very slow and something was just off. I didn’t know what it was.”

The weakened slugger credited his skipper with giving him the opportunity to ride out his baseball wave on a positive note by offering him a graduate assistant position on the team the following season.

“He gave me a reason to have something to look forward to other than pain and surgery and being sick,” Florak said.

When he was playing under Carbone, he felt like an “extended family member,” but that relationship was not limited to his athletic days.

When Florak moved on to take head coaching positions at other schools, Carbone touched base with him once a week to talk about the game and the years they shared together. That friendship was part of what helped him get through eight surgeries, four blood transfusions and bouts with depression, which he describes in his book, Healthier Than Normal.

“I don’t know what he’s learned from me, but I’ve sure learned a lot from him,” Carbone said. “We’ve walked in each other’s shoes, so we get along great.”

Florak reciprocates his friend’s respect and notes that he was not the only beneficiary of Carbone’s guidance.

“I will always know that Joe made my life different and made it better,” he said. “He did that for a lot of people.”

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