GAME, SET, MATCH!

I don’t much like birthdays. I more or less celebrate mine as another year avoiding the alternative. “One more trip around the Sun!” It seems to be too hard to get people together to celebrate and then there is the memory of a heart attack on the birthday I survived in 2006. This is the first birthday after my “complete” retirement. Age does not look good on me! Even when you look up historical events occurring on April 9, you find out it is pretty dismal. Lee surrenders to Grant, the Battle of This, the Battle of That, Babe Ruth is rushed to the hospital…I wonder if it was too many hot dogs or too much beer?

This birthday was a little different. I got a letter on April 6th three days before my birthday. It was addressed to both Linda Gail and myself with a note on the back instructing us not to open it until April 8th. Really? That is almost like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I consider Linda Gail to be the stalwart person in our relationship when it comes to following instructions like “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL….” But out of her beautiful mouth came the question, “Are we really going to wait until April the eighth?” We did with much difficulty. I knew it wasn’t birthday wishes to me or someone was confused about my exact birthdate. It turned out to be just that…birthday wishes…just not mine. It was still one of the nicest birthday presents I could get.

The return address included only a last name, Bryson, from Charleston. Who do we know from Charleston named Bryson? Mandi Copeland now named Bryson! Mandi was turning forty on April 8th and had taken the time to write and thank everyone who had had a positive effect or influence on her life. Despite my disbelief of a forty-year-old Mandi, I was honored to have been included and her recognition of my contribution made both my day and the next, the tenth anniversary of my heart attack and sixty-sixth anniversary of my birth. It was a beautiful tribute, not only to us but also to her.

Mandi Copeland was one of my wife’s tennis players and a student trainer who graduated from Riverside in the mid-nineties. Mandi was MORE than just a player and a trainer. She had all of the outward signs of a happy-go-lucky extrovert, which she was, but her huge smile covered a competitive streak “river deep and mountain high.” She was a bull “in a china shop” in the way she approached tennis, playing in a manner more in tune with one of my defensive linemen than the “Quiet Please” tennis crowd. With her powerful serve and overhand it was “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK” and if that didn’t work she would revert to “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK” AGAIN!

As a student and player, Mandi’s career at RHS was very successful. The tennis team went to the high school version of the “Final Four” all four of her years and played for a State Championship. They should have played for another one but sometimes the “little gods” controlling sporting events throw monkey wrenches into the gears and the team was upset by a Clinton team they had defeated handily just weeks before. The weather “gods” had also gotten involved and the semis had to be postponed requiring both teams to be prepared to travel to Columbia as soon as the match was completed in order to play the finals the next day.

What do you do with a packed van filled with weepy young tennis players? What else, you bring them to “Casa de Miller” for a weekend of “wound licking” courtesy of Coach Porter-Miller and her loyal “Indian companion” Tonto, I mean Coach Miller. I knew something was up just by the way Coach Porter-Miller approached me. How could I say no? No one could ask for a better coach’s wife and I was bound and determined to be a good coach’s husband.

An evening filled with games, gossip and pizza followed by sleeping pallets on the floor, if we slept at all. The next morning a true country breakfast that might have included Hardee’s biscuits was served before a morning spent hiking up and sliding down the “gently rolling” ninety acres of land around our house. I don’t know who had more fun but I am sure the wounds had been healed by the time they all departed. I also don’t know who the brains of the team were but I know Mandi was the heart and the foundation. By Linda’s own description she was the “rock upon which the team was built.” When Mandi graduated and went off to Florida State it was almost like losing a family member. You may be gone but you certainly are not forgotten.

Mandi would become the first person I NEVER wanted in my dugout…a female. I had withstood request to bring on “batgirls.” Once I had even taken “applications” for batgirls but at the last moment chickened out. Girls in the dugout equal major distractions for teen aged boys. I know I used to be one. With the changing landscape of athletics, I did not have a choice when it came to trainers. Trainers and student trainers WOULD have access to your teams regardless of their gender. It turned out that it was a good thing, something I got used to quite quickly and later wondered what the big deal was about. Mandi made it possible because of her maturity and her professional attitude. It did take some getting used to…for the head coach not the team. I also had to mind my tongue, something I needed to do but only had moderate success in doing. A nickel for every time I turned my head, whispered an “expletive deleted” and followed it with a “Sorry about that Mandi.” Usually she would say, “It’s okay Coach, I’ve heard it before.” Yep, probably about a minute ago.

Mandi was one of the special ones, one of many special ones who would define what Linda and I did for most of our thirty-year marriage. For me it would take retirement to realize that I had coached kids and not just a sport. Linda Gail realized it much sooner. Not having kids around due to our retirement has been challenging…until you get a letter from “a Mandi.” Mandi who has followed us into athletics herself, not that Linda Gail and I take credit for it. We are just happy we didn’t screw up and kill her desire.

The Mandis of our life made teaching and coaching worth the long hours for not enough pay. It is usually many years before a former teacher or coach finds out what effect we had on someone’s life and in some cases it is too late when we find it out. Thanks for letting us know before it was too late. I would say it arrived at exactly the right time.
We both love you.
Coach Miller and Coach Porter-M.

For more FEEL GOOD non-fiction by Don Miller go to http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

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