More Soccer (and a basketball) Memories - Tim II

A few more of my favorite memories from coaching

These first two revolve around young players with disabilities.   Both were such neat kids from loving homes wanting to play sports like their siblings, friends and classmates. I was blessed to be able to coach Eric and John.

Eric played soccer for me one season. If I recall correctly the team was a group of U12 boys. Eric might have been slightly older. I don't know the correct term for Eric's disability. Suffice it to say he was mentally challenged in some ways. Eric was also very bright in some ways and could be a bit of a prankster. One of the challenges I faced were complaints from a couple of players / parents of how Eric's presence on the team and especially in the game put our team at a competitive disadvantage. My approach with those people was to cheerfully reply "Of course, it does!  But it also makes us a make stronger team!"  It was enough to defuse potentially ugly situations if only because it stunned them into silence.

I made no exceptions for Eric, expecting him to attempt everything his teammates did. I worked with Eric the same I would with any other players.  I acknowledged and cheered his successes and when necessary corrected his mistakes. I did notify opposing coaches and referees that we had a special needs kid on our team, but asked no favors on his behalf.  If Eric were offside, call it. If Eric committed a foul, call it.  If Eric handled the ball, call it.  I even played Eric in goal a bit.  I, and his teammates, strove to treat Eric as we would any other member of the team.

Eric, for his part seemed to have a great time. The kid was always smiling and often times I spotted a twinkle in his eye that belied a mischievous streak.  For instance, we sometimes finished practice with an exercise known as butts up! This usually involved the coaches or a birthday boy standing in the goal with hands on knees and their back to the field. Players would each have a turn to "shoot the ball" at the coaches butt.  If they hit the coach, no running. If they missed the coach, they ran half a lap.  Eric didn't have much luck hitting the coaches butt until late in the season. I had seen that twinkle in his eye before we started butts up that evening but was unprepared to actually be hit by the ball when it was Eric's turn!   He had picked up the ball, snuck up behind me, threw the ball and hit me in the butt!  Much laughter ensued!   I pretended to be upset that he had "cheated" but Eric didn't care, he had hit coach in the butt!  Secretly I beamed at his ingenuity.

And there's the lesson to be learned.  Soccer is a game about solving problems encountered on the pitch.  That's exactly what Eric had done!  In his own unique way and to the best of his ability he solved the problem.  Love, Love, LOVE that kid.  Such an inspiration to the rest of us.  I cannot begin to remember what our record was that season, but I will always remember Eric was on our team.

John was a sports aficionado.  His special needs were both physical and mental in nature.  Great kid who smiled a lot. I was privileged and honored to coach John in 7th grade basketball. Anyone that has been around 7th grade boys knows their competitive nature really begins to emerge in middle school. Having a special needs kid on your team can be a difficult situation.

I made no exceptions for John. I expected him to attempt everything his teammates were asked to do. To John's credit he dribbled and shot fairly well all things considered. Certainly not at a competitive in-game level but competently nonetheless.  He wasn't much of a defender and playing man to man defense with John on the court was never  a consideration .  Of course, there were one or two players / parents upset about the competitive disadvantage John placed the team in when he was on the court.

My solution with John was to play him in the middle of a 2-1-2 zone whenever he was on the court.  On offense he played "high post".  As I recall we actually had one player / family become very frustrated and leave the team over John's presence. We were struggling through the season, losing games we "should have" or at least "could have" won except for John.  An amazing thing happened as the post season tournament began - the team went on a winning streak that carried them to the championship game!  And yes, John was involved in each of those games.

We didn't win the championship, but I'm not sure anyone aside from John really cared. As I said, John is a sports aficionado.  He recognizes his limitations but that makes him no less competitive. I remember overhearing him talking with his father about if he had only done "this or that" a little bit better. Never blaming his disabilities, only lamenting that perhaps he had not played as well as he was capable of playing.

My own son said something to the effect, "If it weren't for John we could have won, but I think we got a better prize than a trophy by having John play on our team."  And he was absolutely correct.  The lesson here is about making the most of what God has blessed us with.  John certainly did this on a daily basis. His positive attitude was contagious to the point that he was inspirational to his teammates.  I myself don't know if we would have won that championship or not, but I do believe firmly that we would not have played for one without John leading the way.

When I took over the Lima Central Catholic girls program I knew we had to change a culture of losing.  What I did not realize was how deeply ingrained the culture of losing was. That first summer with the girls I remember getting incredibly frustrated with teaching the girls to give intelligent effort.  The idea of less physical exertion in favor of more mental exertion was struggling to find a foothold. It seemed at some point in the past a coach had told them they were not as talented as opponents and the only way they could compete was to outwork the other team.  I took the team off the pitch and we sat in the shade along the St. Gerard's school building. I told the girls they were a good team and it was time to start playing like it.  ...  there was a collective look on the players faces ... I'm not quite sure how to describe it.  I recall looking over my shoulder because I thought something might be seriously wrong. I thought back over what I just said to ascertain if I had somehow been out of line in my speech. I finally asked what was wrong and Sarah spoke up. Of course, it would be Sarah.  She is one of my all-time favorite players. A royal pain in the butt and her own worst enemy, but nonetheless one of my all-time favorites and likely in part because of her response that day.  "No one has ever told us we are a good team."   I was incredulous.  I know my mouth gaped open and I asked "What?!"  Sarah responded with "You're the first coach to ever tell us we are a good team." As I looked around at the girls I saw heads nodding in agreement, but there was something else visible as well.  There was a physical transformation and a changing of attitude happening right before my eyes.  In 60 seconds we changed the culture of the program.  I gave them my belief, my confidence in them and they knew I was sincere. One of the truly unforgettable moments in my coaching career.

The last memory I will share today is actually a product of the saddest experience I have ever had in sports.  A good friend and volunteer assistant to me committed suicide in mid-season. It happened on a Friday night.  I spent much of that night with Justin's family and especially his son, Kaleb who was on our team. The next day Lance and I took Kaleb with us to a tournament in Glandorf.  Kaleb wanted to be with us and it seemed like the thing to do.  Scott Bentz was the coach for the team Lance was guest playing for and when he learned of the circumstances he graciously allowed Kaleb to come along and play that day as well.  The next day our own team was scheduled to play the ISC Storm in Botkins, Ohio and I just didn't know if Kaleb and his family would be up for it. I called to warn the ISC Storm coach, Terry Paulus, of what we were dealing with and he graciously said he would go along with whatever we thought would be best.  We decided to go ahead and play that Sunday.  The sun shone through cloudy skies but there was a bitterly cold wind blowing.  We scored first and I began to think of how good it would be to win that day. The Storm tied the game late and, oh, I don't know ... the result just didn't seem to matter much at all.  Unbeknownst to me, Terry and the parents from the ISC Storm team had taken up a collection for Kaleb and his family.  Now, the first time I ever spoke with Terry Paulus was the day before when I informed him of the tragedy that had struck our team.  I didn't know the guy from Adam. It wasn't just a few bucks they collected either. It was a sizeable amount given to complete strangers. ... now good friends. Both Kaleb and Lance have guest played for Terry and the ISC Storm on numerous occasions.  This is of course a bitter sweet memory, but Terry Paulus and the ISC Storm made a lasting impression on us that day and provided a memory that will last a lifetime. The money, while a wonderful gesture, is not the memory though.  The memory is of others in the family of soccer stepping in to do what they could when it was most needed..  Scott, Terry, all the kids who played in those games that weekend let Kaleb know they had his back and were there to help as they could.  Can you imagine having over a hundred people, many whom you never knew before that weekend embracing you with their love?  That's a pretty special memory, in my book

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