Another cross country season is underway, my 55th year as an athlete or a coach - or now as a retiree. Despite temperatures in the 80's, for me, September 1st marks the rebirth of a sport I love the most - although at times the weather a bit disconcerting, the early meets mistakenly held under conditions that won't vaguely mirror November.
This past weekend I attended a Friday evening cross country meet in Romeoville IL, hosted by Lewis University and UIC, the six team competition showcasing what this sport is all about - grass, hills, and lots of sweat. Although I go out to watch the runners, what I enjoy the most is bumping into friends - lots of coaches and former UIC athletes from years gone by, talking to the Flyer's AD who truly appreciates XC.
On Saturday morning, I drove to LaGrange for the Mike Kuharic Invite - bumping into three former Loyola athletes before I got to the course proper, shaking hands and saying hi to current and former coaches in attendance, greeting parents of former athletes I coached, or even of the ones who chose another school.
After the last varsity race I said my goodbyes, hopping in my car and driving three miles west for the Hornet-Red Devil competition, my timing still impeccable after five years of retirement, the gun firing for the varsity girls race as I stepped on the Katherine Legge course.
Just as I had at LTHS, I ran into lots of coaches, officials, and former athletes in Hinsdale, for me the event better than a high school reunion. We laughed about former adventures, exchanged tips and health issues, catching up with the myriad of things in our lives.
Oh so very fun.
Yet, there were many times while I was still coaching that I wondered why I put up with all the hours, all the miles, all the bad weather. I must have been crazy. Only an idiot would willingly accept these conditions. But when I'm walking through crowds at the meets in search of the perfect location, or just trying to find a spot out of the sun, I understand why I did.
For the connections to the athletes and coaches - individuals whom I will always have a much greater bond than any of the students I taught in high school, or the administrators I worked alongside in college. This group saw me at my best and at my worst over the forty years, just as I had seen them through their ups and downs of life.
Hi Coach K.
Have you ever noticed how heads turn whenever you are addressed as "Coach" in a crowd? How the designation holds a unique cache unlike any other - whether this admiration is coming from plumbers, janitors, and grocery store workers, or doctors, lawyers, and business executives? Strange, but true.
Because to us it doesn't matter if you are brilliant or average. Male or female. From high society or the wrong side of the tracks. Everyone is treated the same - fairly. We expected discipline, dedication, and toughness no matter who you are. What you parents do for a living. We only care about your character - not your status.
To this day, I still feel like the skinny dork I was in high school - 6'1" and 133 pounds, growing up on the poor side of life, wondering what I would ever amount to. But when I became a coach everything suddenly changed. People didn't care if I drove an old car or wore clothes long out of style - I was a coach. That's all that mattered.
It may not seem true, but always remember - we are the luckiest people in the world!