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.









2 comments:

  1. Great post! Really appreciated reading it. Can't imagine how I'll feel when it's time for me to walk away. Totally agree that the relationships you develop with your wrestlers are very special. Congratulations on what was obviously a long and meaningful career!

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