The backyard on Susan Avenue was completely dark by 8 PM, only the shadows of trees standing still and young boys running wild could be sensed by the naked eye. Across the road and a million miles away, was the glow of the high school football field, a full-blown production occupying the rest of the entire Earth. The teams across the street had uniforms of blue and gold and red and white. Steel tipped cleats and 200 pound athletes made quite the rumble at the snap of each new play. The cheerleaders cheered, synchronized with the beat of the marching band’s drums. Parents proudly reacted after every snap of the ball, with various expressions of cheers and jeers. Some young girls looked on with starry eyes, while others giggled in secret conversations held in small huddles.
The backyard teams on Susan Avenue weren’t quite as uniformed. Plaid, long-sleeved shirts or bulky sweatshirts topped off the dirty blue jeans and once-white Chuck Taylors. The leaders of the opposing sides barked out plays to their teammates as they hand wrote the X’s and O’s with dirty fingers onto the palms of their hands. The leaders might not have been the most athletic members of the bunch, but they did naturally what they did best. Strategies were drawn around the abilities of the bigger or faster or more gifted young men. The ones who possessed neither fast lips or fast legs settled into their roles as blockers or rushers, the positions less glorious but equally as important to the success of the team.
Whether it’s sports or music or fashion, there will always be iconic ‘Stars’ that young people look up to and idolize. Down in the basement, safely stored in boxes full of memorabilia, are autographed black & white pictures of Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, John Mackey and Sonny Jurgensen. Before the days of the computer age, a young fan could mail in a request to the NFL team of your Idol and they would mail back an 8 X 10 glossy, signed by the football Greats themselves.
The adults that teach the budding young athletes the basics of the sports that we play are doing it for a variety of reasons. Some are ‘giving back’ out of respect to those that had coached them in the past. Some coach as a genuine civic duty while others are just adding a notch to a self-important belt of social status. And many a parent/coach has learned something brand new, like the game of soccer, so they can be there supporting alongside their own child who was in pursuit of a character building, healthy activity.
Kids, of course, see things differently. Literally, as a small person, looking up to an adult who’s in charge of the activity. And figuratively, as a young person, looking up to an adult for guidance and knowledge.
It bothersome to me, for some reason, the way some children lack respect for their elders nowadays. Part of the underlying cause is the fault of the adults themselves, with the whole “everyone gets a ribbon just for participating” mentality. The coach’s name is not “Bob”, it’s Mr. Danley. He is not your new best friend. He is someone who is older and wiser, and is a figure of authority to whom you should listen and learn from.
I played a lot of games of sport in my younger days and I had a lot of different coaches from whom I learned. I could go on and on about the different styles and personalities, but that will have to wait for a different day, a day that will come soon. But if I was playing a game of ‘word association’ and I was presented with the word ‘Coach’, I’d instantly respond-“Walters”.
When I was a kid, my family lived a block from the town park. I used to run through the neighbors’ lawns every morning to shoot hoops for an hour or two at the park. Afternoons were spent playing tennis, because there were usually cute girls involved. At night, I’d run back over to the park after dinner and join pick-up games of basketball until it got too dark to see. Rainy days would find me alone in the family’s basement, doing countless ball-handling drills, imitating Pete Maravich, except for the floppy socks. In seventh grade, our High School’s Boy’s Basketball team was playing in the district championship, in a town far away. I listened intently to the play-by-play on the radio in my parent’s bedroom, and felt real despair when they lost. Our High School consisted of Grades 8-12 when I tried out and made the 8th grade team, my first exposure to organized basketball. Students got free admission to the school’s sporting events and we’d fill the stands and scream our lungs out as high-flying Stevie Jackson was soaring above the rims and center Rocky Dinges had epic battles against All-District Harry Jordan from Rappahannock County. In 9th grade, now on the JV team, I got the chance to scrimmage against our Varsity team. It was then that I got my first introduction to Coach Walters.
Coach Walters is a legend at our High School. He coached our teams to over 500 victories during his career. He is in the Virginia High School League – Book of Records’ list of all-time winningest coaches. He prowled the sidelines like Indiana’s legendary Bobby Knight, except there’d be moments of smiles and laughs between the intense flares and growls. Coach could somehow scream right up in your face while delivering his message with his pointed finger without ever touching your nose.
After our team got scorched for 10 points in the 1st quarter by Strasburg’s All-District point guard, I received the old, inspirational “IF HE GOES TO TAKE A PISS, I WANT YOU IN THE BATHROOM WAITIN’ FOR HIM !” (along with other words of encouragement). I was hyper-ventilating as I waited directly in front of their time-out huddle, like a two-legged Jaguar waiting for an unsuspecting antelope. His jersey Number was 11. I can remember that after all of these years and now hate the color purple because my face was planted on the front of his jersey for 24 more minutes that night and 100’s more over the next 2 years.
Actual games were easy because practices were intense. There were countless wind sprints and ‘whistle-less’ loose ball drills, bloody noses and wood-burned knees. We pushed ourselves because Coach believed in us, encouraged us and expected us to succeed. We learned the value of working as a team, working strategically together and ultimately learned that hard work does pay off. I can proudly say that each of my 3 years on the Varsity team were winning seasons. We were taught the how’s and why’s of the skills needed to win, counseled when we fell short of our abilities and praised when we succeeded.
The simple definition of ‘Coach’ is someone who teaches and trains an athlete or performer, but Merriam left off the important part ‘that will last a lifetime’.
In my many years of managing restaurants, I’ve interviewed 1000’s of potential new employees. Their stories and work experiences ran the predictable gamut from desperate at the moment to restaurant ‘lifers’. But every once in a while, you’d sit across the table from a young person nervously holding an application with a blank work history, while at the same time giving off an air of confidence.
“No Sir, this would be my very first job.”
“I have always enjoyed being a part of a team”
“Yes Sir, nothing like getting that ‘W’, especially against a team that was supposed to be better than you”.
Well, Mr. Winner, sorry that you didn’t receive any pretty ribbons at the swim meet. You start Monday.
It was a busy Friday night at the steak house with dozens of hungry patrons waiting at the front door for their chance at a table. As I scurried to the front desk to check with the host staff, my head was spun by the sound of a voice that I had not heard in 25 years.
“HEY, LAMBERT !”
Like a 16 year-old hoopster heading to the bench to learn of a change in defensive strategy, I bee-lined it over to Table 601 and a smiling Coach Walters and his wife.
“I sure could use a good point guard this year”
Well, almost all things are possible.
My new book is now on Amazon as an eBook and in print.
John Grisham’s publicist was busy this week when I called, so I’m doing this all myself. Leaving a review on Amazon would be extremely helpful (if you qualify by Amazon rules, apparently). Please spread the word with anyone who might be interested. Thanks! Robin