One of the goals I set for myself is to purposely take the time to thank those who have invested in my life. I got that chance last week while I was in South Georgia.
We were just about to begin the graveside portion of my aunt's funeral, the portion I would be leading. I noticed him working his was from the back of the crowd towards an open area on my left. He wasn't as agile as he once was. He didn't move with the quickness I remembered as a teenager. But there was no denying it was him. Other than the gray hair, he looked much the same.
I wanted to walk over to him immediately and speak (it's been my desire to do this for over 20 years) but the funeral director had just nodded to let me know it was time to begin. As we completed the service, I tried to make my way over to him but was intercepted by a flood of family that I had not seen in a long time, for some it had been over three decades. So, I did the only thing I knew to do...I sent Lisa to make sure that he didn't get away. "Who is it you're talking about?" she asked. Motioning over my right shoulder to the gentleman standing with my cousins, I said simply, "Coach."
That's what he was to me. Coach. To others, he was Ronnie or the McNeese boy or the history teacher...but the word I chose to use (choose to this day) reflects a respect for who he was and what he did in my life.
It was the Spring of my junior year and, thanks to the hell that my current football coach had put me through, I was walking away from a sport I dearly loved and had played for 10 straight years. He (the former coach) had told me he hated me, hated my family and didn't care if I ever played. What a joy!!
Summer came. I got a job working with a crop duster. Instead of my normal summer workouts and football camp, I spent many minutes debating the choice I made, even crying because I knew how much I'd miss playing the game. Then, late in July, I got a phone call from Coach McNeese. The old coach was gone--fired--much to everyone's relief. Coach McNeese had been promoted from assistant to head coach. He simply was calling to say he'd love to have me back out for one more year if I was interested.
That year turned out to be one of the best of my life. Coach McNeese took a rag tag bunch of boys who weren't supposed to do much all the way to the quarterfinals of the playoffs. More important, he reflected character, value and strength that most of those boys had never had the pleasure of seeing on a field of competition. He changed the way I looked at myself, made me believe I could do whatever he asked me to do. We shared a great season. For that I am glad. He invested in me (and a lot of other guys) and for that I am eternally grateful.
Last week, for the first time since I walked across a stage 25 years ago, I got to look "Coach" in the face and tell him how much I loved and respected him. It was a classic moment, one they like to replay in movies and stuff. And, for Coach (25 years and two hip replacements later), I pray that it strengthened him to know that his life mattered probably far more than he ever imagined to this young man. Way to go, Coach. You are the stuff that champions are made of.