Both of Mark's grandfathers came from Italy. Grandpa Dominic Bavaro made wine at home. Every year Mark would get a couple of days off from junior high to help crush the grapes. "I'd be down in the basement running the press and popping grapes in my mouth at the same time," Mark says.
Mark's grandfather on his mother's side, Joe Lalli, is 94. When he heard that Mark was a pro football player, he said, "That's nice, but tell him to get a job with the city—with a regular pension."
Mark used to enjoy visiting his tiny 5'3", 100-pound Grandpa Joe in East Boston, and when he would stroll over to the schoolyard to play some basketball, Joe would be alongside him. "I've got to watch over Mark," he would tell his wife. "He's from the country. These city kids are rough."
Bavaro's first athletic fame came when he was a slender, six-foot high school freshman; he high-jumped an inch above that. The next year he finished third in the national Jesse Owens Games in Los Angeles. "Mark's form was so good as a high school sophomore that I took a bunch of Super Eight movies of him and used them in my classes," says Jim Madore, who was Bavaro's track coach at Danvers. "Then his body changed from all the weightlifting. He got heavy but could still get us a second or a third in the high hurdles, and in his junior year he high-jumped 6'6" to finish second in the state indoor meet."
Madore says he can still see Bavaro and his two friends Myers and Bedrosian, both shotputters, going through their track workouts at half speed, waiting for someone to look the other way so they could escape to the weight room. "We told him," Bavaro says, " 'Listen, Coach, we'll compete in the meets, but we're not going to practice all the time. We want to lift.' We were football heads. We didn't like all those track workouts."
"Sure, that was Mark's defiant period," Smith says, "but he knew where his future lay better than anyone. He was a football player and he knew it. He always had a plan to get where he is now."
A look at his high school transcript shows grades in the 70's. He was a good student under pressure, but inconsistent. "He was bright and did enough to get by," says Mary Ellen Taylor, who taught Bavaro trigonometry and geometry. "He knew what he needed. I'd ask him, 'Why don't you do this all the time?' and he'd say, 'I'm trying, Mrs. Taylor.' He was always polite. Looking back, he probably knew exactly where he was going."
Mark's football career took off in his junior year. "He was what you'd call a practice stopper," Smith says. "At U Mass, I played with Milt Morin, the tight end who went up to the Browns. Milty was the same kind of player. Once in practice Mark went 30 yards downfield for a pass on a windy day. The ball nosed down, and Mark just reached down, knee level, and squeezed the ball, with his palm downward, and pulled it up. I never saw anything like that."
That year Bavaro led his league in touchdown catches. He made two high school All-America teams as a senior, but it was an injury-marred season. He dislocated his left elbow in the first game. They said he would be sidelined for six to eight weeks. Not quite two weeks later, he was at Mass General getting outfitted for a special plastic brace.
"An unpaid assistant coach, Tommy O'Brien, went with him," Smith says. "The lab tech told him, 'O.K., it'll be ready in two weeks.' Tommy slipped the guy $25 and told him we needed it for Saturday. 'Come back tomorrow afternoon,' the guy said. Mark played, and he played the rest of the year, but he wasn't really right until the last game—and the two All-Star games."