Sunday, November 9, 2014

HALL OF FAME


The following is the transcript used to present my Hall of Fame induction speech on November 1, 2014 at the Hilton in Vancouver, Washington.

Video Link:  Craig Foster HOF Induction Speech

INDUCTION SPEECH TRANSCRIPT

Entering the Hall of Fame is not something you dwell on as a coach.  But as you tally some years–I'm entering my 35th–you occasionally allow yourself to dream a little . . . what would it be like?  But then you quickly stuff the thought, believing there is no way you belong.  So this is a pretty unbelievable moment for me.

I'm honored to enter the Hall of Fame, especially alongside my friends, Scott Bliss and Chris Wolfe.  Scott and I became friends when he coached at Montana and Wyoming, and I coached at Eastern.  I learned some great lessons from Scott, the most memorable of which was, "As a wrestler, keep it simple.  Don't do too much.  Don't beat yourself."  I have missed Scott.  

I knew Chris as a wrestler, then as a rival when he coached at PLU, and in more recent years as coach for Steilacoom High School.  It was always nice to see Chris and his team at the Battle at the Border.  Chris always brought a smile, and positive things to say.

 
• • •
When I moved to Blaine in 1991, I didn't know what I was getting into.  I already had 12 years of coaching experience, but nothing prepared me for my first several years in Blaine.  I was following a local legend who had coached there for 18 years, and had just led Blaine to a state title.  He was dismissed just prior to my arrival.  The community loved this coach, and felt he was unfairly terminated.

When I arrived with a completely different style, many were determined not to accept me as coach.  The controversy in those early years made it difficult to continue coaching there.  I felt like that coach in the movie, Friday Night Lights.  I’m thankful now that I didn’t give in to the pressure.  Despite the turmoil, we had success in those early years, finishing as state runner-up twice.

But suddenly, around 2002, my program nearly went extinct.  NBA player Luke Ridnour grew up and became a star in Blaine, and for many years, every kid in our little town wanted to be a basketball player.  Kids would laugh when I asked them to turn out for wrestling.

We hit bottom when we had just 7 wrestlers on the team, and most of them were beginners.  I recall lining up for a dual against powerhouse Mount Baker–and my friend Ron Lepper–with five eligible wrestlers.  It was humbling, and my detractors had all the ammunition they 
needed . . .
  
Except their ammunition did little good, because I had protection in the form of a strong athletic director named Gary Clausen, who believed in me, and stuck with me when it wasn't the most popular thing to do.

Gary became a close personal friend over the years, and we made him Godfather of my son, Tanner.  Gary is a Hall of Fame baseball coach, and when Tanner heard I would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he joked:  "My two dads are Hall of Famers!" 

Gary and his wife Carrie made the long drive down here, and I'd like to introduce them.  Thank you both very much, for all of your support, and for your friendship.
• • •
I’m proud of many things in my career, but the thing I'm most proud of is making the decision to climb out of the hole my program was in.

Probably the most important thing I did was hold a meeting for all wrestlers between 5th and 8th grades.  I gave them t-shirts with a secret code:  WTF0206, which represented a goal.  We kept this plan a secret, because a team at the bottom of the heap talking about winning state sounds like hot air, and talk is cheap.  These kids kept our secret for years, never once talking about it to outside people–even parents.

WTF0206 stood for Worst to First–worst team in the state in 2002, to first team in the state in 2006.  The kids committed to the goal, and worked hard for years. 

We didn't reach our goal of a state title, and it hurt, but in the bigger picture, that group of kids resurrected our program.  Their commitment literally saved Blaine wrestling, and laid the foundation that would lead to a state title this past season.  While there are special kids every single year, as a group–led by the graduates of 2006–they will always hold a special place in my heart.  Even today, they remain the closest band-of-brothers, of any team I’ve ever had.

During our climb from the bottom, the disgruntled folks faded away, and I could finally call the Blaine program–mine.
• • •
Fast forward to the winter of 2014.  We had a balanced team of athletes with experience, but no dominant superstars, and we weren’t the favorites at state.  We had a great regional tournament on our home mats, and sent a bunch of guys to Tacoma, but had no one expected to make the finals.  As you know, quality, not quantity, is what usually wins at state.

Throughout the tourney we suffered close losses, but also put up enough wins and bonus points to hang in the race.  When the smoke had settled heading into Saturday night, we had two in the finals, to Forks' 1, and Forks held a 1.5 point lead.  Our first finalist, Jon Stewart, lost  close, and Forks' finalist also lost.  That left our fun-loving heavyweight, Mikey Antczak, with the hopes of an entire team and town in his hands. 

Rarely have I seen a state meet come down to the final match of the night.  And Mikey stepped up, wrestling a near-perfect match.  I still get chills when I recall the crowd and his teammates chanting MIKEY-MIKEY-MIKEY during the last 30 seconds of that match.

Mikey was the headliner, but it was a total team effort, with many kids contributing wins and bonus points, and earning eight medals.
For me, it was the thrill of a lifetime in coaching. Accomplishing a goal like that as a team, and seeing the tears in the eyes of the kids, and families, and alumni, and fans, is something I will never forget.
• • •
Along with Chris and Scott, it feels good to join so many coaches I’ve admired, and friends, in the Hall of Fame.  A few of these include my college coach, Stan Opp, one of my college wrestlers, Scott Jones, and a good friend and former teammate, Manny Ybarra.

Stan was the first person I met in Washington when I arrived.  He put me up at his house, and helped me transition into school and wrestling.  He was a slick technician, and has always remained a loyal friend.

I remember the day I met Scott Jones, an 18 year old freshman, in the Eastern weight room.  We went to the wrestling room the day we met, and drilled.  That was before his beautiful wife, before all those great children, and before his amazing coaching career.  Back then, Scott was just a young kid, trying to do good things, and he’s been doing good ever since.  I’ve been proud of Scott from that very first day.

Manny Ybarra and I became friends during my early days at Eastern, and later I watched as he built a strong program at his alma mater, Quincy High School.  Manny is the person who nominated me to the Hall of Fame.  Thank you for that, Manny.

There are many other friends and coaches I've admired in the Hall of Fame.  It's such an honor to join them all.
• • •
Some of us remember how we felt as kids on Christmas morning.  Or, we recall the twinkle in our kids’ eyes, and their excited squeals as they bum-rushed the Christmas tree.

For me, somewhere along the way, tournament mornings started to feel like Christmas.  It’s an excitement that comes from the anticipation of seeing my wrestlers, bright and early, and hopeful that some will make a breakthrough that day.  It’s the promise of long, funny, and sometimes stinky drives.  It’s the love of competition.  And the joy of seeing coaching friends again.  It’s the guilty pleasure of eating way too much great food, and hanging out for fourteen hours with my best friend and assistant coach, Jim Rasar.  I guess Christmas comes early when you get to spend hour-after-hour on a wrestling binge.

I love wrestling.  And that feeling seems to grow stronger every year.  Still, this past season, my wife Jeri and I decided that it would be my last.  And I thought it would be my last. Right through the spring, and through the summer, I thought so.  But as the new school year began, I knew I couldn't quit.  I love it too much.  So now, I’m prepping for my 35th season.

There are lots of things I like to do.  Coaching wrestling feels like what I'm supposed to be doing.
• • •
If you've been in the wrestling game for a while, you've encountered kids with all kinds of life stories.  For me, I could tell you about coaching a Naval Academy grad, a commercial pilot, a construction company owner, an air traffic controller, and on it goes.  But because wrestlers often come from tough circumstances, or make bad decisions, I can also tell you about coaching drug addicts, and alcoholics, and prison inmates.  Sadly, I can even talk of wrestlers who’ve passed away, too young. 

Despite our efforts as coaches, some things are out of our control, and life can be unforgiving.  The Academy grad and those like him are easy.  You just cheer them on, and appreciate ‘em.  But I'm drawn to the challenge of the others, maybe because I was once that kid.  I had great parents and a stable home, but still, I brought issues on myself.  Without getting into dirty details, I will only say that when I found myself in jail at age 15, it was my high school wrestling coach, Cary Brody, who bailed me out.  And for many years after, wrestling continued to bail me out of bad decisions and hard times.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I can say that wrestling–forever loyal wrestling–was put in my life for a purpose, and it literally saved me–faithfully sticking with me–always there to get me back on track.  When I could finally stand on my own, I grew to love and appreciate wrestling for its influence in my life.  Because of that, using wrestling to help struggling kids feels like my most important responsibility as a coach.  I haven’t always succeeded, but I will always try.
• • •
Now, I’d like to list a few of my most influential role models, mentors, and friends.  Some you may know, and others you probably won’t.

Cary Brody, my high school coach, who tried his best to straighten out a wild kid, and was the first adult outside my parents who believed in me.

My former teammates and childhood best friends, Randy Flook, Jeff and Ted Wilton, and Chris Faircloth.

Mike Henry from California, and later, Oklahoma, who always had my back, who got me my first teaching job, and showed me what it meant to run a total wrestling program.

Mark Leen from Oklahoma, and later, Tennessee, who taught me how to believe in my team, and how to get them to believe in me.  He also showed me how to stand up to your boss when necessary, and how to take bold chances.

Jim Rasar, my wingman during my time in Blaine.  The bad cop, to my good cop.  Every coach needs one.

John Owen from North Idaho College, who always had time for a young coach.  John was generous with his time and advice, and though I never wrestled for him, he coached me up more than he knows.

Anders and Per Lars Blomgren, because who doesn't love them?  They are so much fun to spend a day on the mats with.

Jay Breckenridge, my former teammate and one of my best friends in wrestling, who showed me there’s a fine line in stating your opinion, and how to cross that line and keep your job.

Ron Lepper, who just retired as Mount Baker wrestling coach.  I will miss him.  We had over twenty years of intense competition against each other, and somewhere along the way we discovered that you could love your fiercest rival.

DJ Duncan, my former wrestler and loyal assistant coach for the past 5 years.  I love loyalty.

John deWeber, my very good referee friend.  Coaches and referees can be like cats and dogs, but somehow, through our mutual love for wrestling, we have become the very best of friends.  John inspires me, because I’ve never seen a man more committed to his craft, or to the sport.

My wrestling sons, Tyson and Tanner, who have lived this journey with me for their entire lives.  Nothing I can think of is more special than coaching my own kids in this great sport.

I'd also like to mention my own parents, who are gone now.  During my high school and college matches, they would sit quietly, high in the stands, out of the way, and simply enjoy watching me wrestle.  I came to count on them being there, and before every match, I would quietly make eye contact with dad for a moment.  It gave me confidence.  He was the strongest, gentlest, most honest man I've ever known.  Mom was a gracious host, putting my teams up at her home during many road trips, feeding, doting, and even tucking into bed.  Some of the last wrestling memories I have of my folks are them sitting quietly in the front row at the Rock tournament on Vashon.  They could no longer climb the bleachers, but still, they couldn't be kept away.  I miss them every day, and I know they would be proud to sit in the front row, today.  Perhaps they are.

Next, I'd like to thank the girls in my life.

My daughter Chloe is a die-hard wrestling fan, and whenever I talk about retiring, she will have none of it.  She's been the coach's daughter for her entire life.  I love that my little girl loves wrestling.

Just like I didn't know what I was getting into when I came to Blaine, my wife Jeri had no idea what she was getting when she married a wrestling coach.  She had no experience with the sport before me, and she probably thought it was just something I did in my spare time.  She soon found out that wrestling not only consumed me, but swallowed up our life together.  She learned that "normal" holidays would never happen, and that "regular" life would be put on hold for the better part of every year.  Wrestling has dominated my life, and so it has dominated hers.  And Jeri has accepted it with grace, because she knows how important it is to me.  Honey, I appreciate your support over all these years, more than I can ever say.  Thank you.  This honor is as much yours, as it is mine.  I love you.
• • •
If there is any wisdom I can pass along to other coaches after all these years, here are a few tidbits I find important.

Being tough is more important than being slick.

Teaching how to win matches is different from teaching wrestling skills.

Without a “no-doubt” fitness level, nothing else matters.

Keep it simple.  Doing a few things well is more important than a big bag of tricks.

And last, relationships are more important than anything else in a wrestling program.  Especially between coaches and wrestlers.  When you have trust, and respect, and love present in those relationships, you can teach them to wrestle.  And so much more.
• • •
Finally, I’d like to say to all wrestling coaches–first year guys–old dogs like me–and everyone in between:  We usually have our game faces on, and sometimes we battle too hard in competition, but I know what it takes to coach this great sport, and I respect you all for it.

Thank you very much.