John Rooke

A tribute to John Anthony Zannini, aka 'the Statbeast'

June 30, 2017 - 3:50 pm

By John Rooke

Instead of the usual “Thinking Out Loud” musings and observations of our little corner of the world in sports, I hope for this week you’ll allow me a few minutes of time to tell you a story…about a best friend, a loyal, kind soul and one of the nicest people I’ll ever know. 

John Anthony Zannini, aka “the Statbeast”

We first met on the set of “The Rick Barnes Show” not long after I began my tenure at WPRI-TV in Providence, in 1988.  John attended the show’s taping with his father, John B. Zannini, and he got up the courage to introduce himself after the show had completed and most everyone had left the studio.

In fact, it was his father who made the introduction, explaining that his son really wanted to get into sports, but was unsure how to go about it.  It seems Dad pulled this off with a few others in the media biz (URI’s Gregg Burke among them, who was at Providence at the time), to help his son gain footing in the terribly slippery slope of the sports information industry.

Just shows you the love and pride Dad had for his kid.  John Zannini’s pop was one of the best, and most convincing “agents” I ever spoke with.

I told son John, after listening to his father brag about his kid and his knack for numbers, to come down to the floor anytime he saw an open chair next to me on press row.  Nowadays, you’d be stopped by security guards for not having a pass, but sure enough, John did just that after my invitation – joining Joe Hassett and myself as our statistician for PC’s 1990 NCAA Tournament game in Salt Lake City, Utah against Ohio State.

It happened to be the only time I had an open chair beside me that season, and John seized the moment.  He rarely left my side for the next 28 years.

I kid about John quite a bit in this forum, sharing stories that we’ve swapped, both true and untrue.  But always funny.  John Zannini passed away this week, at the young age of 55, leaving behind his wife Lisa, his son Matthew and his daughter Alexandra.  He battled cancer as bravely as I’ve ever seen a person fight this hideous, insidious disease, and he could never seem to get ahead in his battle with it.  But I’ve never seen a person more determined to beat it, and there’s nothing funny about that at all.

It’s quite noble, actually.  Honorable.  Brave.  Even if it ended in defeat.  But John hasn’t lost anything.  No, it’s something very different.

We’ve all won, those who knew him and worked with him, for having known him in the first place.  We’re the winners, for having been friends with him.

You’ve heard the cliché “as nice as the day is long?”  That phrase had to have been written about the Statbeast.   And how did he get that nickname?  Glad you asked.

During one of our earliest moments as a broadcast team, John sent over a particularly in-depth note to Joe Hassett, and my sitting between them usually meant I was the chief note-passer…just like I was in elementary school.  But this time, Hassett took the note and blurted out “this is great!  John Zannini is a beast!”

I stuck him with the moniker thereafter, as the “Big East Statbeast” from PC.  The legend grew from there over the next 28 years.

The Statbeast began making friends in the sports industry through our travels together, and it didn’t take long for his abilities to become noticed by others.  Television production crews came after him.  Play-by-play announcers asked for him, by name.  Many called this week to ask about him after they heard the awful news of his passing.

Basketball, baseball, football, hockey, soccer – there wasn’t a sport he didn’t know, there wasn’t a game he didn’t like and appreciate.  His father would be so very proud of the niche he carved within the Big East, and in the northeast corner of the sports world in general.  He was just as passionate for the Red Sox and Celtics games he worked as he was for our Providence-Georgetown battles at the Dunkin Donuts Center. 

John had the respect of every media mogul he met, of every sports information director and communications’ VP he worked with, high school, college or pro.  He was that friendly, and he was that good at his gig.

With so much time spent on the road together, naturally we shared our mutual loves and stories quite often, and John helped me through more than a few down moments in my own life.  He would rarely offer an opinion – he’d just listen, and nod approvingly.  I would always return the favor, and only offer an opinion when he asked for it – quite the change for me, for certain.

Our travels included a mutual love for food, of course.  We had our favorites for sure – from Primanti’s in Pittsburgh to Dinosaur BBQ in Syracuse, Skyline Chili in Cincinnati to Katz’s Deli and Little Italy in New York, as we always managed to seek out a slice of the local culture.  We once walked more than two miles in a driving rainstorm (what, no taxis?) in Philadelphia for a Tony Luke’s famous cheesesteak. 

It was that good, and Z insisted we go, even though we couldn’t catch a cab.  We just started walking toward our destination, figuring we’d find a taxi along the route.  Before you knew it, we were there, soaked, but standing in line for a slice of cheesy, greasy heaven.

And we walked the two miles back, in the rain, because it was the right thing to do.

John was loyal.  He was faithful.  He loved his wife and children.  He loved PC.  He loved the Patriots, where he sat by my side for 24 seasons as my spotter in the announce booth.  He loved the Big East, and he loved the people within the Big East, everyone sharing his passion for loyalty, for competition, for excellence.

And I loved him.  So did everyone else who ever befriended the Statbeast.  John A. Zannini was one of a kind, so I tell myself I won’t be sad for him…even though that’s a lie.  I tell myself I’m so very happy I knew him, and that our paths crossed in this life.  He was more than a co-worker and friend.  He was my brother-from-another-mother as the saying goes.  We shared so much that we had in common.

And I’ll so look forward to meeting up with him in the next life, wherever that may be, for the next game on our schedule.

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