Posted by: cctracker | November 5, 2012

Team, Tradition and the Torch

Our Cross Country team won the State Championship yesterday.

There are clichés about this sort of thing, but it really was a glorious victory. A cold, clear fall morning. Thousands of young athletes, with many thousands of their families and friends, gathered on a golf course in rolling hills at the edge of the northeastern Ozarks. Our guys were among the favorites, but underdogs for the championship. In a field of 170 or so elite runners the odds-on favorites to win placed their first four runners at 1st, 3rd, 10th and 27th: an incredibly strong showing. But in Cross Country you have to add 5 runner’ s places for your total score and their number five man was well back.

Meanwhile, though our top two nabbed All-State honors at 8th and 21st, the rest of “the pack” was right behind them in the 30’s. They didn’t get sucked out to an imprudent start. They moved up steadily. Finished very tough. But the key was they stayed together. That cohesion, that team approach, was the clincher. They won by three points, much closer than a buzzer-beater in basketball. They had obviously been well-coached.

I’ve been away from coaching for three years, but I’d coached the team for 27 years and this realization made an impact on me. It was a little painful: the program was obviously thriving without me. Though this wasn’t “my” team, as I watched them celebrating afterwards I saw generous, humble, hard-working, virtuous young men who exhibited the kind of character I’d aimed at cultivating above all else as a coach.

That’s when my thoughts returned to my own high school coach. Not long after he died in 2000, I wrote a tribute about him. I’m posting a version of that essay here in his honor and in recognition of the way all of us depend upon cultures of faith and virtue created by those who’ve gone before us, most of whom we never know by name.

Tradition, Class and Pride: In Loving Memory of My Coach

 I first met Coach in the late summer of 1973, a few days before I began high school. I had come out for Cross Country on a dare from a grade school classmate with only the vaguest notions of what I was in for. On that hot, humid morning he led me on a 3.1 mile run. By the time we turned the last corner and surged toward the finish, with him picking up the pace but still keeping me close, my childhood was somewhere on the pavement behind me. By the time I graduated, with eight seasons in Track and Cross Country, a 1975 team State Championship in Cross Country and over 3,000 miles of training behind me, my Coach had become one of the most important people in my life. 30 years later, with 27 years of coaching, four State Championships and my own coaching career behind me now, I see that his influence continues in the lives of hundreds of young men who will never know his name, and through them, will be passed to thousands more.

For the three years before I met him, my Coach had been teaching Physical Education, serving as athletic director and coaching Cross Country, Soccer and Track and Field at my tiny Catholic Seminary High School. My first impressions were of his physical presence. He was a big man: tall, wide shouldered, with a broad face and prominent, chiseled features. His blond hair and mustache completed the picture. I’m sure I was frightened of him at first. But that wasn’t my deepest response. From that first day we ran together, I saw grace in the way in the way he carried himself and humor and compassion in his countenance. And from that first day, his hand was a guiding presence in my life.

He was remarkably light and quick on his feet for a man of his size, soundless when he ran. I remember his first words of instruction about running: “Land on the forefoot, not on the ball of the foot, not on the heel, and not flat-footed. Just behind the ball and slightly to the outside. Then down on the heel, back to the forefoot and off.” I remember thinking this was crazy, too precise. How could you control all that? How could you learn it if it didn’t come naturally? But watching him run I could see he had mastered it. Eventually, I did learn. I’ve never forgotten how to teach it.

He was a Shot Put and Discus man in college. When I first saw him throw the discus, it took my breath away. First, a moment of humble, focused, motionless concentration in the circle. Then, a slow-motion twist into the spin and pivot, a startlingly smooth acceleration and, an instant later, the controlled explosion of release. I remember the  disc spinning away, climbing, spinning flat and true as if it would fly over the school building a quarter-mile away. Much of who he was in body and soul is captured for me in that image: silence, discipline, and control balanced against speed, power and exuberance. Perhaps that is what “graceful” is meant to convey.

When he laughed, the same forces were there: something irrepressible bursting out, something else, restrained and controlled, holding it in. His whole frame shook in the muffled struggle. The team captain my freshman year was a lanky and circumspect intellectual with great competitive drive and a biting wit. Many times I watched them catch each other with subtle, barbed comments tossed back and forth. Sometimes just the arch of a brow was enough to set them off: first one shaking in silent laughter, then the other. It was clear to me even then that he and Coach were friends. That really caught me as a young boy: this man in a position of authority had offered his friendship to a student. The respect between them was as obvious as the humor.

Coach was loved by many for a thousand reasons, but among his closest friends, his alternately wry and outlandish sense of humor may be missed most of all. And it wasn’t limited to witty banter. He once dropped a colleague to the track with an outrageous joke. For ten minutes, his assistant coach– a close friend– was incapacitated with laughter. Coach stood over him, impassively, as if nothing had happened, which made the whole thing even funnier for his victim. What I love most about this story is that Coach was by nature and habit of mind as far from the crude character of the joke as he could be. He knew well in advance that this unexpected arrow would hit the target.

Nevertheless, he was a “stoic.” In fact, when the word came from his lips in one of those early coaching speeches about the nature of Cross Country running, it was the first time I ever heard the word with a real sense of what it meant. In fact, my whole vocabulary of formerly abstract virtues like “courage” and “perseverance” became visceral, lived realities because of who my Coach was. For him, “stoicism” was an irreducible word. It had to be understood from the inside. Being a stoic meant a host of things you might expect to hear from a Cross Country coach: not complaining, accepting pain, enduring interminable workouts, fighting off fear, sobs and excuses. In his view of running you never quit; you ran every step of every run, including every jog unless injured–and even then you had better be relentlessly cross-examining yourself to make sure you weren’t actually quitting on the inside. He believed we had to learn to persevere in this life, to develop courage if we were ever to come to respect ourselves. His workouts did frighten me at times. I dreaded, even hated them on occasion, but I ran them. And I have bragged about finishing them to my team and my family ever since.

Yet there was something deeper and unexpected implied in the word “stoic” for him, something he communicated in posture and glance as much as in word. He was a man acquainted with suffering. He expected life to be hard, even brutal at times. Harsh realities didn’t surprise him and he held no illusions about them. I know there were painful chapters in his childhood, perhaps much more painful than any of us guessed. Whatever the events of his early life, he had somehow thoroughly absorbed the first Nobel Truth of Buddhism: “Life is difficult.” But this truth had not made him a cynic. It made him instead into a person determined to face the world and all of its demons—inside and out—with quiet dignity. We were expected to do the same.

And so Coach had lots of rules. Sometimes they felt harsh and utterly inflexible: “Always be on time.” “Never miss a practice.” “Observe every detail of every routine no matter how minor.” But ultimately, every one of his rules was really about discipline, honor and respect and those, of course, were non-negotiable.

One of his assistant coaches told the story of an elite Track athlete one year who seemed a lock to win the District in his event and might have even contended for a high medal at State. He had already missed one practice, however, and in Coach’s book even one missed practice meant an athlete could not compete in the next meet. The next meet in this case was District and the athlete was late. The assistant coach remembers sweating nervously in the locker room, looking up at the clock again and again hoping the kid would show, wondering if Coach knew what the stakes were, whether he would be willing to be flexible. But he went on with the pre practice routines saying nothing. Then at some point, when his internal clock told him the line had been crossed, Coach looked up and flatly announced: “That’s too bad.”  Those of us who loved him laugh about this story now, measuring our own greedy, shallow standards against his.

The rules I remember most of all, though, were about character and values. “Our teams always stay together in tight packs before and after a race.” “Never return an insult no matter what anyone says to you.” “never hot-dog a finish and never hit the dirt, either.” “Shake your competitor’s hand.” “And always, always have CLASS. ” We never had any doubt that he lived that message himself.

Many years after I graduated I heard the story of his first marathon. He had “hit the wall,” as so many runners do, at 20 miles or so and it looked as if he would never finish. Somehow, he kept going. The pain made him oblivious to everything but his resolve not to quit. When at last he crossed the finish line, friends and relatives had to wrestle him to the ground to convince him that the race was over.

The last race began for my Coach in the fall of 2000. Our high school had closed and Coach had gotten a Phys Ed., Track and Cross Country job with a public school district. The adjustment to a new context was frustrating and difficult for him, but he endured. It took him a few years to begin to establish a tradition, to communicate what he meant by “class and to teach his athletes that genuine pride in your accomplishments must never come at the expense of virtue. He endured in sowing those seeds and in time, they took root. On a perfect fall weekend during the 2000 Cross Country season, his “new” team captured the Championship at a prestigious Invitational. After many years of building a program with few runners and little success, he had again found a group of young people willing to make his vision for achievement and character a reality. They looked so familiar. I hear he had nicknames for all of them. His team captain was a young man Coach obviously loved and admired. I could tell by the way Coach talked about him that he was a friend.

The evening of that victory, Coach had an aneurysm. He spent the rest of that season in the hospital slowly recovering, with his wife and their three children devotedly caring for him. At the end of the season, with Coach still in the hospital, his team captured a fourth place trophy at the State meet. The team left the awards stand with tears in their eyes, carrying the trophy they would later present to him in person. Though I was 25 years their senior, I felt like one of them that day.

After some very positive signs in late November and December, Coach suffered another series of strokes. He spent his last few weeks peacefully, at home with his family. His long race ended on Christmas Day. I never had an opportunity to see him much in his role as husband and father, but from the conversations I shared with his family during his illness and afterward, I could tell he had been wonderful at both.

Several seasons before I retired from Coaching, searching for a way to capture for incoming freshmen what Cross Country at our school was supposed to be all about, I found myself thinking of my Coach. The words that came to mind were “Tradition, Class and Pride.”  My athletes latched on to them right away. “TCP” they called it as if it were one virtue. It looks good on a t-shirt sleeve. “TCP” is a whole host of virtues that was embodied for me by a man they never met, but to whom they nevertheless owe much of what they became as athletes and as young men.

Thank you, Coach. May your legacy endure for as long as there are young people ready to run and perfect fall days for racing.


Responses

  1. We called ours, “Stump:” or maybe it was the other way around, and we were his. Either way, I suppose “Coach” would have been a fine enough moniker. But something about Harold Stump Porter’s German middle name just seemed to settle with us. It felt as square and right as a guy named Sam, who could swing and toss a full bale of hale with one hand. Our Stump was square and right too. He gave us a strong, clear channel of character in which to navigate our wild adolesence. We won a lot, and he even made champions out of some of us. But the running was just the byproduct.

    • Thanks for the testimony, David. We can’t see, as youngsters, that the running is the byproduct of the real training, the real formation. So much of the energy we felt then, the passion and focus we witnessed, went into the immediate goal: the times, the places, the dreams of victory. They told us that all of that was secondary to character even back then and we listened, but with only half our hearts. Our eyes were on the course, the next runner, the prize. Now, looking back on ourselves–on the starting line, the tracks and the hills–we feel the ways the whole of who we are was formed under their high expectations, their generous service.


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