Just a five letter word but for anyone who has been blessed at some point in their lives to participate in sports, a word that hopefully represents a person who has exerted a positive energy into their lives. When I think of the many coaches I have had in multiple sports, I also think of all the contemporary female classmates who back in the 60’s had no opportunity to participate in competitive or interscholastic athletics, who never had the chance to experience the growth and life lessons learned from a great coach.
Like humanity in general, coaches span the whole range of “the good, the bad, and the ugly”. Personally, I was pretty lucky in the character of the coaches I had along the way. Although I did have one former Little League coach who totaled out my Triumph Spitfire, after I had just washed and waxed it in front of my parent’s house, on his way home from an afternoon visit to Shug Smith’s Oak Hill Tavern, my experiences connected me to some great people. Little League coaches Mr. Lester, Mr. Holliday and Mr. Tyner were great examples of sportsmanship coupled with volunteerism and a real desire to let kids be kids and have fun with the game.
My favorite baseball coach though personified some of the great qualities of a coach. Joe Chesare. A great lesson for us all in the downside of judging a book by its cover. Joe was not, to my knowledge, a great former athlete. He didn’t coach because he had kids on the team. He loved the game of baseball and wanted in some way to pass that love on to us kids. I can still see Joe walking across the fields, bat bag over his shoulder, cigar stub in his mouth, tobacco stains on his t-shirt but, always, always a smile. One of my greatest sport’s memories was the day Joe taught me how to throw a curveball. Joe came to the mound in practice with our catcher, Dan Tice, after I had just moved up to Babe Ruth League from Little League. After Dan reassuringly referred to my curveball as “a dinky one”, Joe showed me a different way to grip the ball and snap my wrist at release. In a made for TV moment, my first try had ball movement that looked like an optical illusion, the ball “dropping off a table”. Joe just smiled and walked back off the field and I knew I had a primo go to pitch. A good good man who let us have fun and had fun with us.
Although he never said it, I always felt that my Dad resented when I quit playing baseball and focused on running. My love of running had its genesis in a program run during the summer by a man who I could never call anything other than COACH. Joe Wilber. My hometown back in the 60’s invested in numerous programs during the summer to give kids opportunities to learn new skills and interact with their peers. Joe Wilber ran the summer track and field program, by himself, pretty much staging a small meet on Thursday afternoons. I think I probably went for the first time in our neighborhood public transportation system………the Meehan’s station wagon with probably 15 kids, unbelted, crammed into it. No pictures from that era but in my mind’s eye, I see COACH WILBER in standard 60’s gym teacher mode, grey t-shirt, grey shorts, crewcut and non stop, no nonsense but all done with a sense of humor and getting everyone involved and feeling positive. So many friends that I continued growing up with and competing with and against who are gone now. Jimmy Johnson. Fred Von Holtz. Joe Bendzunas.
As I moved up in school, Coach Wilber was our junior high school gym teacher as well as my basketball and baseball coach. In basketball, I was probably one of his few major failures as he was unsuccessful in getting me to shoot layups leaving the floor on the right foot. That and the fact that in terms of vertical leap, a dime was about it, led me instead to become a bomber. In baseball I remember a time when Coach came to my rescue as an umpire was going to eject me from a game. I’m coaching third base when a very close play at third has the umpire calling our player out. I said loudly, (phonetically) “HAY-SOOOS COR-O-NA” which the umpire interpreted as Jesus Christ. Coach took me aside and asked me what I said and when I told him, he had his wry Coach Wilber smile on his face and smoothed the troubled waters with the ump.
For all my life, as often as I ran into Joe Wilber, I could never for a second consider calling him Joe. Even when I was in my 40’s and would run into him early in the morning at the Oswego Country Club when my son and I would be exploring the back nine hitting balls but more importantly looking for frogs and turtles, the occasional fawn, he was always, had to be always, Coach. When he died suddenly, like many others he had been a positive life force for, it was like a punch in the gut and the funeral was tough. In my life, I have many times had one wheel off the track, maybe two, heading for the ditch and it was always the memory of Coach Wilber that pulled me back. He has run marathons with me, is with me every time I ride the bike, and there are few days that I don’t think of him and how thankful I am to have known him. To have had him as a COACH.
Part two: Running coaches