BY Chris Harlan
A tree in the middle of a grassy field in Sheraden served as the first press box for a 7- or 8-year-old Don Rebel, who climbed the branches and offered play-by-play for his older brother’s Wiffle ball games.
He called it as he saw it.
“They got a big kick out of that unless I said something derogatory, and then I’d hear rocks whizzing by my head,” Rebel said with a laugh. “I always say they were my toughest critics.”
That was the origin story for a continuing career that’s entering Year 35 and earned the TribLive HSSN broadcaster induction this spring into the WPIAL Hall of Fame.
Rebel’s voice has become synonymous with high school sports in Western Pennsylvania, first at a small radio station in McKeesport
before fronting a series of innovative online sites, starting with the Nauticom Sports Network three decades ago.
The WPIAL induction banquet is June 2 at the DoubleTree in Green Tree.
“For a guy who makes a living with words, I’m at a loss,” said Rebel, insisting his success required a team effort. “When (WPIAL administrator) Vince Sortino called, I thought he was joking. When he convinced me he wasn’t, I didn’t know what to say.”
This past year tested Rebel’s resilience more than most. In the past 12 months, he was hospitalized with a rare fungal infection in his lungs and underwent open-heart surgery to repair two valves.
He hasn’t attended a game in person since last winter, but through the magic of the internet, has found ways to call contests from his home, and he continues to record his “Rebel Yell” podcasts, despite a temporary reliance on supplemental oxygen as his lungs heal.
He says he’s optimistic his health is headed in the right direction.
“I know I’ve been blessed because I had a lot of prayers coming from a lot of people,” he said. “In a situation like that where you have so many people reaching out, it was just really humbling.”
Rebel landed his first radio job in 1988 at WIXZ in McKeesport
after studying broadcasting and communication at Point Park. The bosses at that small station let him launch pregame and postgame shows, popular Friday night staples he took with him to Nauticom and later the MSA Sports Network, which became TribLive HSSN in 2017.
WIXZ also broadcast the release of the WPIAL playoff brackets, a tradition he continues at HSSN.
“Don is a force in high school athletics spanning many decades,” said Jennifer Bertetto, president and CEO of Trib Total Media. “He is well known from his time at MSA Sports Network and has grown his status as a legend in WPIAL athletics even more during his time at Trib Total Media. When we first purchased the network from MSA, over and over again, people would call it the Rebel Network. To this day, I still hear those words, and they always make me smile.
“He is a fantastic ambassador to high school sports, a valued contributor to our organization and an incredible person I have enjoyed getting to know over the years.”
Streaming high school games on the internet was a novel idea in the late 1990s, when Nauticom was launched and Rebel was brought on board. That endeavor lasted only a couple of years but was resurrected by Rebel as the MSA Sports Network in 2001 and included radio stations around the area.
The network changed the way WPIAL fans have listened to — and now watch — games ever since.
“He has withstood the test of time,” said retired WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley, who led the league from 2006-20. “He has adapted and adjusted. What he does is tremendous. I used to (kid) him all the time that he was going to interview me and (the internet signal) would go out into space. But the viewership that he gets and the numbers of people who follow what he does speaks volumes about how popular he is.”
Last February, a day after broadcasting a WPIAL boys basketball quarterfinal at Montour
, Rebel felt ill and headed to an urgent care. The covid test was negative, but he was worried he had pneumonia again.
After reviewing his X-rays, the staff told him he needed to go to the hospital. They already had called him an ambulance.
He was hospitalized for a week and sent home on oxygen. But while in the hospital for his lungs, he said, doctors ran additional tests on a pre-existing heart issue.
They scheduled open-heart surgery for June to repair a damaged valve, but his lungs weren’t improving, so the procedure was called off a few weeks before the date.
“I was just in limbo,” Rebel said. “They thought I was going to get better, and I wasn’t. It was like Groundhog Day. Every day was the same.”
The medical breakthrough came when doctors diagnosed him with allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, an extreme immune system response to a common fungus found in soil. He started a four-month treatment, meaning the heart surgery had to wait.
Yet, by November, nine months after going to the hospital, Rebel told his doctors he was ready to move forward with the surgery, even though they warned him there was risk because his lungs weren’t 100%.
“There was a point in time between hearing those words and the surgery that I thought, ‘Well, you know, if that’s it, it was a great ride,’” Rebel said. “My faith has allowed me to be strong throughout this and positive. The last few days leading into surgery, I was very confident that it was going to work out. I know there were probably some family members that weren’t as confident.
“There was major concern.”
He and his wife, Laurie, have three sons, Brandon, Ryan and Carson, and five grandchildren.
The Nov. 21 surgery at Jefferson Hospital was successful, he said, but required surgeons to replace two valves, not just one.
“While they were in there they saw another valve that was in bad shape, so they repaired that too,” he said. “So I got a BOGO.”
After 35 years, Rebel said he couldn’t begin to guess how many high school games he’s broadcast or remember the first game he ever worked. It was surely a game near McKeesport.
Among his highlights was the 2005 triple-overtime boys basketball classic between Beaver Falls
at Palumbo Center, known historically as the “Lance Jeter Game.” A 1991 football final between Bishop Canevin
also stands out.
He said his most difficult was a baseball game between Quaker Valley
and Seton LaSalle
, when his son, Carson, was pitching for Seton and gave up a go-ahead two-run homer in a loss.
“I had to make that call with this great excitement, while in the pit of my stomach I’m feeling terrible for Carson knowing that he pitched a great game against a very good offensive team,” he said. “I went back and listened to see if I did that home run justice, and I did.”
There are athletic genes in the family, but Rebel jokes that in his generation, they all went to his brothers. So his voice became his way to get involved in sports, starting with those Wiffle ball games on the field near his childhood home.
“I just sort of tagged along as a skinny, little runt,” Rebel said. “I always went up hoping they were short-handed and they’d say, ‘Come on, Don. Come on in. You can play.’
“It never really happened.”Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer.