Saturday, May 14, 2016

IT MAKES YOU FEEL



I stalled for a couple of months, waiting for a sign that maybe the time wasn't right.  A sign never came.  So, after 36 seasons–every single one blessed with special kids–it's clear to me that now, is right.

The right timing doesn't make it any easier to retire as a wrestling coach.  There is so much to leave behind.  The daily grind.  The competition.  The pursuit of dreams.  The kids. 

When I finally found the courage, I sent a letter home to wrestlers and their parents.  I told them I was done.  I explained a few things.  I thanked a lot of people.  I did my best to answer the questions, why now, and why us?

Why?  There are many good reasons.  Age.  Energy.  Health.  Family.  Different dreams.  A host of other reasons, none of which include a declining love for wrestling.  That's why it's so damn hard.  In the face of the many absolute reasons to quit, I love wrestling, and coaching wrestling, more than ever.  

So when I found the guts, I made a leap into the unknown, an abyss without wrestling for the first time in over 40 years.  I sent a letter bomb to deliver my message, which took all my strength to drop in the mail.  Cowardly?  Maybe so, I won't argue.  I was afraid of calling a meeting with kids I've been to battle with, kids I love, to tell them I would no longer be their coach.  I wasn't sure I could have managed it.  But, I also wanted the word out–directly from me–to parents and kids at the same time.  I didn't want rumors or questions to persist, or my verbal story filtered through 20 teenaged brains, and dispersed to everyone seeking answers.  So, I dropped my bomb in their boxes.

My letter reached mailboxes yesterday afternoon.  I know, because my wife Jeri is a rural mail carrier.  I texted her relentlessly.  Have you seen any letters?  Have you delivered any?  Who did you deliver to?  How do you think they will handle it?  Should I be worried?  She's busy and had reason to be annoyed, but she wasn't.  She patiently answered my questions.  She loves me, and knows I'm twisted up, inside.

I knew today at school–my first day seeing wrestlers without a coach–would hurt.  I didn't know how much.  I entered the locker room before classes, unsure of what to expect.  I found myself being stealthy and quick, head down, traveling directly from A to B.  One of my guys spotted me, and came to my PE office. 

"Coach, I heard a nasty rumor," he said.  He looked at me, then cast worried eyes downward, waiting for me to tell him it wasn't true, to make it all better.  I couldn't.  We hugged, said we loved each other, and he shuffled back to his locker.  I bolted from the locker room.  One, was enough for now.

I went to a classroom and began writing greeting cards to each kid I was leaving.  Therapy.  A last chance to tell them how I felt.  One last thing, something, to leave them with. 

Before 4th period I handed a card to a young state medalist, a little boy in a man's body.  The kid is a beast with a heart of gold, who benches and squats a million pounds.  The gold-hearted beast quietly took my card, and no words were exchanged.  Later, after 5th hour, he appeared in my office.  Again, he said nothing.  It looked like he wanted to speak, but couldn't find the words.  I told him I was still here, and would always be here for him.  Just not on the corner of his mat.  We fought tears, as men try to do, and hugged.

Later during my weight training class, another wrestler and I kept our distance, avoiding eye contact and proximity.  We both knew this was going to be tough.  Eventually he passed near me, and I asked, "How ya doin'?"  He flashed an awkward smile, a mask, then answered, "How you doin'?" I returned the same smile-mask, mine with quivering lips.  Then, he asked, "Written any letters lately?"  After a pause, I countered with, "Got any letters lately?"  He said, "No, but I heard about one." 

Our little word-dance quickly dissolved into a strong, tearful hug between a young warrior–a two-time state medalist–and his old coach, in the center of the weight room, while other students watched, and wondered.  He quietly whispered something that included the word "father," and we both sobbed harder.  Eventually we let go, tried to compose ourselves, and moved in opposite directions, disappearing through different doors of the weight room.

Later, I saw him in the locker room.  I told him something I've re-discovered many times, something that always feels fresh and new, and absolutely true: The greatest thing about wrestling, is that it makes you feel.  Sometimes it hurts beyond description, and other times it's amazingly good–even beautiful.  Real life, at it's finest.  The highs don't happen without the lows, and both occur because there has been work, and commitment, and pain, and love involved.

If the retirement of an old coach didn't hurt this bad, it would mean that everything along the way didn't really matter.  But it does hurt.  It matters.  In its own painful way, it's beautiful.

Wrestling always offers new discoveries.  Today, I found there is something I will miss far more than the competition, the winning, the practice, the grind.  I discovered a thing  I intuitively knew all along.  I will miss the kids most of all.









GOODBYE


May 10, 2016

Dear Wrestlers and Wrestling Folks,

I write this letter to share my thoughts and feelings with my current wrestlers and parents, and to express my appreciation and thanks to many people.  All things in life eventually come to an end, and no one coaches forever.  I’ve decided to resign as wrestling coach at Blaine High School.  I’ve been coaching for 36 years, and it’s time. 

This has been a tough decision, and two things are especially hard.  First, I’ve been a wrestler or coach for most of my life.  Wrestling is–and has always been–my identity.  I love the sport, and I’m not sure who I’ll be without it, but I look forward to finding out.  Second, I knew the day would come when I’d have to leave a group of wrestlers.  It was inevitable, but still, it hurts.  When you watch kids sacrifice, and suffer, and work like these boys do, you can’t help but love them for it, and saying goodbye to people you love is one of the hardest things in life.  They aren’t all state champions or medalists, but they are all special, and equally hard to leave.

Still, many wise old coaches have said, “There will always be wrestlers, so if that’s your criteria, how do you ever quit?”  In 36 years, I’ve coached many hundreds of kids.  Today, I leave an exceptional group of wrestlers and their families.  Behind them is another wave of kids, and after those, many more.  So yes, the old-timers are right.  There will always be kids, but at some point all coaches will leave their teams behind.  Now, it’s my turn.

In learning this news, some of you might be sad.  Others may be hurt, or even angry.  Some may even be thinking, “It’s about time!”  These are all natural reactions when someone has coached as long as I have.

If you’re sad that I’m leaving, it means you are loyal and appreciative of my efforts, and our relationship.  I appreciate you in the same ways–your kindness and loyalty mean the world to me.  Please remember the good times, let go of any sadness, and look to tackle new challenges.  In wrestling and in life, there are always new challenges.  One can’t afford to stand still for long, and as you move forward, I hope you’ll offer your support to a new coach.

If you are hurt or angry, I ask for your grace in understanding that my leaving is not about you, but rather, because it’s time to give my wife, my family, and myself that best part of me that has been reserved for wrestling through all these years.

If you welcome a change, I understand.  Coaches cannot be all things to all people.  But I hope you understand that I gave my wrestlers all that I had to give, for many years.  Now, I wish for them the best coach possible, one who carries on the solid tradition of Blaine Wrestling.  I will be rooting for the new coach, and for these boys.  I believe they are capable of competing for a state title, and it will be exciting to follow their progress.

To the many alumni, parents and fans that embraced me as your coach, thank you!  Your loyalty and support have lifted me throughout my career.  These positive relationships are important to me, and I hope that my resignation will not cause our friendships to fade.

To my long-time wingman, Coach Rasar, and to all of our other coaches over the years, we experienced a good share of success, and faced many struggles together.  We worked our way through it all, and had a blast in the process.  I will miss my time on the mats with you.

To my troupe of managers and stat girls, you are a small sorority of awesome people!  Many of you don’t know each other, but you are a band of sisters (and one brother) who enhanced our program, and my life.  When your faces flash in my memory, I can’t help but smile.  Thank you for all you gave to me, to our wrestlers, and to our program.  You were very important to Blaine Wrestling, and are still appreciated.

To the hundreds of opposing coaches and referees I count as friends, our relationships are one of the best byproducts of being involved in this wonderful sport.  While I’m sure we’ll see each other from time to time, I’m aware that not having a team to compete with changes the dynamic in our relationships, and that saddens me.  Things will never be the same, and change can be bittersweet.  

To our administration in the Blaine School District–the School Board, Ron Spanjer, Scott Ellis (and former Principal Dan Newell), Wayne Vezzetti and Steve Miller (and former ADs Gary Clausen and Tom Luehmann)–you have treated me, our program, and our kids with unprecedented support.  This level of respect for wrestling by our administration is not apparent in many districts, and I appreciate working for each of you.  You are simply the best.

To our teachers and staff in the BSD, and to our community and businesses, you’ve taken a measure of pride in Blaine Wrestling, embraced our program, and supported us through your sacrifices, efforts, donations, and more.  In return, we appreciate and respect you all.  Thank you.

Finally, to the wrestlers who competed on my teams–in Blaine, Los Alamitos (CA), Shawnee (OK), McLoud (OK), EWU (WA), and Delhi Tech (NY)–we share a bond that is one of the most special aspects of my life.  Of the relationships I’ve had outside of family, my relationship with you is cherished above all.  We faced some moments together, enjoying amazing highs, and suffering devastating lows.  I’ve learned that experiencing one, makes the other that much more profound, and the intensity of feelings evoked by wrestling is unlike anything else.  But as I reflect, I realize that what happened on the mat is only a small part of things.  The van rides and hotel stays, the classroom interactions, the hard work, the joy and the suffering together, the life emergencies, and graduations.  Then, the weddings, and babies, and second generation wrestlers.  Like life, this list goes on and on, but it’s wrestling that binds us together.  While I have naturally been closer to some of you than others through the years, I love you all for what we shared.  Thank you for your hard work and your commitment.  Thank you for your loyalty.  Thank you for your friendship.

Sincerely,
Craig Foster