Confessions of a Coaching Fraud…

 

My induction into a former high school’s athletic hall of fame has me flitting hither and yon over memories from forty-plus years of teaching and coaching.  For some reason, I don’t feel very worthy of the accolades.

It was great to see former players now conquering their own lives and being successful by any standard applied. Former students, coaching peers, and parents stopping by and pumping my hand or hugging my neck.  It wasn’t great, it was wonderful.

Still, I wonder in the back of my head, “Why?”  “How?”  “Am I a fraud?”  Sometimes things were too easy…except when they weren’t.

Dozens have extended congratulations and well wishes on social media and email.  Despite my pride and delight…I don’t feel worthy.

The festivities were poignant, my plaque sitting alongside Tim Bright’s, a player who passed too soon due to colon cancer.  A player who was, along with hundreds of others, responsible for my success.  I wonder what he might have accomplished had he not left us.  His family is so dedicated to his memory.  His charity is still doing great things for those who suffered as he did.

My wife…a former coach herself and far superior in my estimation.  As always, standing by my side.  Always supportive, always ready with a meaningful critique of the last game’s outcome.  Greatest supporter and greatest critic.  “Just let them play and quit bunting so much.”  “Why did you do….”  I do miss her voice distinguishable from anywhere in a stadium no matter how large or loud the crowd was.  “Come on Coach, run your other play!”  I am so lucky and so unworthy.

As I look back, it seemed too easy.  I know I’m looking through the sands of time and the time is becoming a sandstorm.  Still, great assistant coaches, great players, and great parents made my successes.  I just walked around being me.

I’ve heard so many horror stories that I never experienced.  There were just a few bad apples, just a few obstacles…maybe they weren’t bad apples…maybe I just did find the key to unlock their potential.  I do feel like the king of frauds.

There were laughs and tears but the tears were minimal.  When we gather and exclaim, “Do you remember…?”, the question is always about the laughs.  It is easy to remember the good times.

Through the magnifying glass of retrospection, even the bad seasons were good.  Seasons we knew we were bad but managed to get better.  Sometimes a seven-win season could be as rewarding as a state championship season.  Seasons you really didn’t know how good or bad you were.  Seasons you just put in the work that didn’t seem like work and hoped for the best.  I believe I always received the best they had.  I hope they received mine.

When I first began my coaching journey, I was terrible.  Some might say, “Nothing ever changed.” It is a fact I’m comfortable with because I believe I grew despite feeling apologetic to those early teams.

I grew and turned a corner of sorts after a bitter loss. I lamented to the offending coach. “I don’t know what to do.”  His answer was, “You love them.  Remember, you’re not coaching football, you’re coaching kids.  Win or lose you love them.”  I tried to apply his nugget through the rest of my career.

Names and faces blur over time but I can honestly and unapologetically say, “I loved them.”  I didn’t coach football, soccer or baseball, I coached kids.  Maybe I’m not as big a fraud as I believe.

It has been three years since I last stalked a sideline or a dugout.  I honestly haven’t missed the practices or the games.  Every time I think I might return to a grassy field my body does something to remind me of the beating it has taken over the years and those feelings pass.

What I miss is the comradery.  I miss the interactions with my players, the coaches and the opponents staring back at me from the opposing dugout or sideline.  Those were good times and I miss them.

I still feel like a fraud.  It was too much fun, it was too easy.  Great players make for good coaches.  I had a cornucopia of great players. Thanks for the memories guys, thanks for the effort, thanks for my successes.  Thanks for letting me be me and letting me be a part of your lives.

HOF

Don Miller writes at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The featured image was lifted from https://eic.rsc.org/feature/coaching-for-success/3010068.article.

The whistle is the symbol of the coaching profession.  I find it interesting that I rarely used one.

A TURN OF A KEY

 

Woolgathering doesn’t quite define it.  I wasn’t pleasantly lost in my thoughts…well…the triggering mechanism wasn’t pleasant.  Word came that a former player has died and then Aretha left us the next day.  Their deaths sent me down the metaphorical pig trails my wife often talks about.  I never met Aretha but Pat…Pat played for me and deserved better from his former coach.

I see him with his arms crossed over an ample belly, chin on his chest, his helmet cocked back on his head during a break in practice.  His head is cocked to the side as he listens to our diminutive offensive line coach pontificate.  They share a joke, both belly laughing and after a bit of back slapping went on about their business.  Seeing them in my mind is a prized memory.

He was a big youngster, playing offensive tackle, gregarious and fun-loving…except when he was trying to get in on the defensive side of the ball.  A pest with a huge grin enveloping his whole face, “Come on Coach Miller, I can do this.  I can make a play.”

He wasn’t the quickest kid, built for comfort not speed.  I tended to put runners on the defensive side, nasty folk who could fly to the ball…he wasn’t a runner…nor was he a bird.  He could be football nasty on occasion…and was.

Maybe I should have rethought my philosophy.  In a goal-line situation, we sent him in to add a bit of beef on the line of scrimmage and he came up with a fumble recovery.  I clearly see him running on to the field, chin and face mask jutting forward in determination, arms windmilling.  Smiling, I see him fist pumping in celebration as he took his place in what had become the offensive huddle.

His junior year we caught lightning in a bottle six times and had our hearts broken four.  The four losses were all heartbreakingly close and as their coach, I should have figured out a way to win a couple of them.  The last one cost us a trip to the playoffs.

Six and four was the best we could muster during my four-year tenure…back when I thought I was a football coach. There is much guilt, regret and now sorrow associated with those years.

He is gone, stolen from us in the middle of the night.  I’m still regretful…regretful I haven’t kept in contact. I forgot I coached kids, not football.  He and the rest of them deserved better because winning was never the only thing.

My pride was hurt and according to the Bible, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  I don’t know about the haughty spirit, but pride made me push the memories aside.  My “embarrassments” were placed in a mental “lockbox” and stored in a far corner of my mind.  I turned a key and walked away thinking it would hurt less.   “Out of sight, out of mind” meant the good recollections and warm feelings were locked away too.

There are too many good memories to hide them away…and too many good friends…the coaches and players.  People I should still be in touch with.  There is too little time to allow bad memories to overshadow the good.

Pat, I’m sorry it is too late for us.  I’m sorry about your beautiful family and their pain.  I know they are hurting.  I know too, they will have wonderful memories to fall back on when they are ready.

The key has turned and the lid has opened flooding me with memories.  The bad ones are still there but overshadowed by the good ones.  Bad memories can be handled when you have so many warm ones.

Rest in peace Pat knowing you will be missed…and adored.

The image was stolen from https://www.escapeyourfateup.com/store/p3/Multi-Room_Experience.html

For more of Don Miller’s musings https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

THE SIREN’S CALL

A week and a half before high school football practice will begin and I am already hearing her song. The siren’s call of heat and humidity, the smell of freshly cut grass, the scent of over ripe athletic socks and ammonia from sweat soaked practice uniforms. As bad as it sounds, it is still the perfume of a sexy and sultry mistress from long ago. Our affair ended years ago but I still feel her caress on my skin and her call in my head. She tempts me today as she did all those years ago.

It’s been sixteen years since I broke off the relationship, in favor of family, friendship, and health. I hung up my rarely used whistle and shoved my over-used coaching shoes into a closet. I do continue to temp myself, watching football on TV or attending the occasional game. My senses say, “It can’t be that long ago that I last answered her melody, can it?” The calendar proves it is. Somehow, I can’t quite believe it…the desire to answer her call is just as strong today as it was those not so long years ago.

There is something seductive about the call, it’s more than the potential glory of a successful season. It is more about the people…it’s always been about the people. Relationships forged in the fire of competition. I miss those people, those I left behind and those I never got to meet.

There is something destructive about her song too. The unbelievably long hours, too little time with family. Arm chair coaches who have all the answers. My own loss of religion when plays or games go badly.

A week from this coming Friday I will face the day as I face all days, probably with an early morning walk or run. Despite my endeavors to keep my mind off my former mistress, her song will call to me. I will relive those earlier days and think about the young men I had the honor to coach. I will mull over great wins and heartbreaking losses. The pull will be strong but I’ll make sure Linda Gail ties me to the ship’s mast before I destroy my ship on the rocks.

HAPPY FOOTBALL SEASON to all.

Please take time to visit Don’s author’s page at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP or like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cigarman501/

A PLAYER…ALL GROWN UP

For a guy who coached high school baseball for over thirty years, I don’t go to many high school baseball games. Just four this season. I feel a little guilty about not going but have found if I haven’t invested in the kids playing, I’m just as happy to catch a few innings of a collegiate or a pro game on the tube while relaxing on my recliner. Maybe I’m just being lazy.

Today was different. Instead of being lazy, I sat on the first base fence line watching a former player, Tim Perry, coach his high school team in our state high school playoffs. I might have been the only spectator who was more focused on the third base coaching box than the actual field of play.

The site of the game was a field where, in a past lifetime, I had wandered from the dugout to the third base coaching box and back again just like my former player was doing. I felt a certain kinship with him and understood the emotions he was possibly feeling. I watched him cheering, clapping, offering up nuggets of baseball knowledge and teaching the game. Picking his players up after an error or a strike out…no visible berating although I don’t know for sure what went on inside of the dugout…no berating I’m sure.

I was happy to be a spectator. The gut wrenching, acid churning and Tums gobbling days’ of “life or death” competition rest squarely on his much younger, broader shoulders and are, thankfully, in my rear-view mirror. I’d rather just cheer for him.

There is a comradery among coaches, even rival coaches, and these two knew each other well, having competed against each other since their little league playing days. After losing the second game, the district final, I wondered if they were still friends? Knowing Tim’s personality, I would guess yes.

When I first met Tim, he was a freckled faced ninth grader. He had one of those angelic faces that lit up the world when he smiled. Angelic face but full of “snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.” Short and just a few pounds past “stocky,” he resembled a “pleasingly plump” Alfalfa of Our Gang fame or maybe Howdy Doody of Buffalo Bob renown. If you look at him just right today, you can still see it.

Tim was trying out for our junior varsity team and had all the correct mechanics and moves, learned from hours of baseball camps and honed on hundreds of diamonds around the South, if not the nation. He looked good doing whatever he was doing. The problem was he looked good swinging through a lot of pitches, having a ball roll between his legs or having to line him up with a fence post to see if he was actually moving when he ran. I cut him. Doing so might, I say might, have been a mistake.

When a young kid gets cut he has a couple of options. He can allow it to ruin his athletic career, just quit and feel sorry for himself, or he can work harder and try again. I imagine you might guess which Tim did. It didn’t hurt he had a growing spurt over that next year, as in about six inches, a foot? No not that much but he was six foot plus by the time graduated. He turned into a good player, the ace of my pitching staff and good enough to play college ball. Yeah, maybe I made a mistake. I cherish the picture of us made when he signed his letter of intent to play for my old alma mater.

More importantly, and more to the point, he’s turned into a good man with a beautiful family. I watched a three-year-old boy run around and play as the game went on. He is Tim made over, a freckled faced little imp. The little boy’s mother and sister are pretty, brunette images of each other, thank goodness. I’m not sure how much Tim’s wife actually got to watch the game while keeping up with two fireballs. I know I never saw her sit down. Tim’s parents were there too, aging but still pulling for their son, always his biggest cheerleaders…and greatest teachers. How much support does someone deserve…a lot in Tim’s case.

I would guess it was heaven ordained Tim would become a baseball coach. He was already a coach when he played for me. Tim loved the game too much not to pursue that vocation along with a career in teaching despite a short tenure in the “real world,” the non-teaching world.

I’ve found there are two kinds of men who coach baseball…at least at the high school level. Those who coach the game for the game, and those who coach the kids. Over the years, I’ve found I don’t have much use for the men who coach the game just for the sake of winning championships…and I know, we’re all in it to win or you don’t stay in it very long. Observing Tim, I saw a coach who was coaching baseball but more importantly he was coaching kids and having fun doing it…and they were having fun too.

Tim, I’m glad you were mine for a brief period and happy you have turned into the man you’ve turned into. I hope you know how lucky you are to be that man. Maybe next year Coach…and I’m really sorry I made that mistake.

Don Miller writes “memories.” If you enjoyed this short essay, more may be purchased or downloaded at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP

Natty Old Tees

How many tee shirts are too many? I dare say I have collected enough to wear a different tee daily for a year without repeating once. Since I have retired, tee shirts and jeans seem to be the attire of choice, unless it’s summer and then it’s tees and shorts…except on Sunday. I do wear dress shirts to church…with dress jeans of course. My father is rolling in his grave.

While I no longer exercise in cotton tees, the new technical fabrics are lighter and wick perspiration better, I do love the feel of freshly laundered cotton against my skin. It reminds me of freshly laundered and blued linens, line dried in the fresh air and sunshine…memories having nothing to do with tee shirts.

I’m attempting to sort through my collection of tee shirts and make some decisions. Good ones to wear out on the town in one pile, not so good ones, frayed or forever soiled with chicken grease or pizza sauce, banished to the work tee shirt pile. Worn out tees exiled or repurposed to be used as cleaning rags or to tie up tomatoes on their stakes. I hesitate to throw them away because of the memories surrounding some of them.

Forty years ago, Champion made the best athletic tees, heavy and meant to last. I know this to be a fact. I still have a now yellowed one with the orange lettering, “I Believe.” Worn to death, it is much too fragile to wear now, it turned forty this past fall. A friend and mentor, now gone almost as long as the tee shirt is old, presented it to me and some fifty other coaches and players before the first game of a memorable season. No, I need to put it back right where I found it, tucked away with all its memories from one sparkling season.

Another specimen is a plain, royal blue with more holes than fabric and needs to be thrown away but I can’t. I wore it during a state championship campaign after giving up my number twenty-three jersey to a younger player so he could dress with the team. I keep hoping the tee has a little bit of good luck left in it. After losing a fight with my chainsaw three decades ago, I wear it whenever I am using rotating equipment in hopes it will keep me from losing a body part. So far it has.

A light blue tee with “North-South All-stars” screen printed on the front is displayed in a fading picture made during the after-game celebration. Tim Bright, Anthony Fairchild and Chris Bates are smiling with me and reminding me of better days, “Brighter” days. The actual tee has been worn little since the picture was made and will be stored away with its bitter-sweet memories.

Off-white by design rather than age, I have a heavy-weight tee with a New Zealand logo. I found it on my desk at the close of school one year, a parting gift from New Zealander and exchange student, “Hobby” Hobson. I never got the chance to thank him and wonder often what he might be up to in one of those “lands down under.” How, in the name of all things holy, did it get a hole in the back? No matter, it will stay in the “memorable” pile and be worn with pride, hole and all.

Soiled and stained there is the technical tee from the first 5K run after my heart attack, another from my first half marathon, and an unused one from the last half I didn’t get to run due to an injury. I couldn’t really repurpose those, could I? Maybe the one I didn’t get to run.

There are so many others. A blue Jocassee Bait Shop tee, a gift from a favorite player. The much too small white one covered in pink flamingoes. A gift from a teaching friend who shares my love for the odd looking, yet beautiful birds. My prized Buffett concert tee featuring colorful parrots drinking from margarita glasses along with mermaids swimming about. What to do, what to do? Nothing I guess…simply wear them and remember their meanings for as long as I can see and feel them.

Visit Don’s author’s page at https://goo.gl/pL9bp or pick up a copy or download his new book, Musings of a Mad Southerner, at https://goo.gl/zxZHWO.