This past weekend I drove Highway 2 through the wheat fields of Eastern Washington with my son Burke to go camping. I have driven these roads before but it’s been quite a while. Sailing through the rolling hills of wheat for as far as the eye can see reminded me of what really matters.
Like so many coaches I went into this career to make a difference. As a teenager I had some struggles and there were coaches in my life who helped me not only get through the tough times but be successful. When I graduated from college and went into teaching/coaching I wanted to have the same impact on young people that my coaches had on me. I also wanted to have a winning program. I envisioned a program that won many state titles, competed on the national level and where our town had one of those welcome signs that said, Lake Stevens Home of the 12-time State Wrestling Champions. We eventually got the titles but not the sign. It’s ironic that there is no sign because in the end it is not the trophy’s, championships or welcome signs that matter it is something much deeper.
At the beginning of my career developing a successful program seemed so easy and winning our schools first state title was honestly intoxicating. I brought the trophy home and placed it on our mantle for a couple of weeks. There were nights I would get out of bed, sit on the couch and just stare at it having to pinch myself. We did it I can’t believe we did it. Watching my dad coach for years and never win a title surly put some added value on the accomplishment. I know it may sound naive and simple but that’s what we are when we’re young. I truly wanted to just build a championship program never really thinking about building a bunch of relationships. In reality that’s exactly what we do each every day is build all different types of relationships.
Throughout that spring and into the summer I rode a high that spurred me to work even harder on winning. My team returned some key members one of which was a kid named Matt who had placed 4th in a very tough weight class. Matt was named our captain for the upcoming season. Like me at his age Matt was a kid that struggled outside of wrestling. His dad Robert, a former wrestling coach had died in a plane accident when Matt was eight years old. Matt was searching for a male role model and found one in me when I showed up his freshman year. We hit it off and I couldn’t have been prouder of a kid for turning the corner and cleaning is life up.
At wrestling camp that summer we had some long reflective conversations about alcohol, drugs and the future. Matt had confided that he had been sober for a few months and that he was working hard to put that stage of his life behind him. He also told me he wanted to wrestle in college and become a teacher like his dad. I left camp feeling really good about where he was headed and excited for the upcoming season. The captain of my team had battled demons and was ready to lead. I felt this team, with this leader and the returning members could make a serious run at another state championship. On the way back from Idaho I dropped Matt off at rest stop in the middle of wheat country in Eastern WA. He was going to work his uncle’s wheat farm for the remainder of the summer. It was a very hot day when he shook my hand and thanked me. We hugged and said our good byes. I got back in the car, air conditioning on high and drove away waving to Matt. He sat on his bag in the grass waving back while waiting for his uncle to come pick him up.
Coaching has always been a season to season endeavor for me. Looking at each team as an individual entity I work to shore up the weak spots, fill the spaces vacated by graduating seniors and finding the right leaders to bring it all together is part of the craft I enjoy most. I’m like that wheat farmer who each year busts his ass to make sure his crop yields the best returns. Sometimes there are things out of our control like weather or maybe not having the right mix of kids to work with that affect the outcome. One thing good farmers and coaches do is to take care of all the variables within their control to ensure the best possible crop. We can sleep well at night knowing we did everything necessary to achieve the highest level of success given that years components.
It was now mid-July and with camp over summer vacation was in full swing. In the summer of 1990 Seattle hosted the Goodwill Games and I had a job mat side running the video for protests and reviews. Upon returning home from camp I was in a state of wrestling euphoria. The greatest wrestlers in the world were going to descend on Seattle and I would have front row seats. I knew many of the competitors from my college days and was looking forward to re-connecting with some old friends. Things couldn’t get any better.
Enjoying an easy morning with no pressing commitments I had just finished a cup of coffee and the daily paper when the phone rang. I can’t remember now who was on the other end but if I was to guess it was probably my assistant coach Dean. On the other end of the line was news that Matt had died in a motorcycle accident going out to work the wheat fields that morning. I learned later he was following his uncle out to fields on his motor cycle. Matt didn’t see him come to an abrupt stop because of the dust cloud and rammed the back of the truck crushing his chest and dying on the spot.
Up to that point in my 26 year life, other than my grandparents I had never lost someone I was close to. The next weekend I drove the four hours to the small farming town of Harrington to attend Matt’s funeral. The air was bent by the heat and sadness of the day. In the middle of a field a small white church held Matt’s family, a minister, a group of twenty or so of his Harrington friends and a small number of people from Lake Stevens. Stocks of wheat, brown and dry waved in the afternoon wind. Matt’s body lay in an open casket flanked by memorabilia of youth. Bouquets of wheat, handwritten notes, key chains, a couple cans of chewing tobacco and other fragments of shared memory. I leaned over and again said my goodbyes to Matt and in turn much of my innocence. My farewells at the rest area just days before held hope and anticipation now were replaced with an abrupt finality of emptiness. On the lonely drive back through those wheat fields I sobbed like I had never before. I couldn’t stop saying to myself, “we were just getting started, we were just getting started.” My feelings were only eclipsed by the pain I felt for Matt’s mom who had now lost both her husband and son way too early in life.
When I got back to my family that day I can remember how tired I was and how hard it was to look at my own little daughter and son without feeling a sense of fragility. Life could be so cruel and unpredictable. I cried for the first time in front of my son that day knowing full and well there are no guarantees that life will go just as we plan.
In the following weeks and months the hurt and loss was replaced by the great memories of Matt. I went to the Goodwill Games and watched one of the greatest victories in wrestling history as the US defeated Russia in a thrilling and dominate performance. It was cathartic to get back to the sport and lose myself in the event. The next season would come and pass with a heaviness I didn’t know how to change or prevent. We all thought about Matt a lot that year and still do even to this day.
Ultimately, this tragic moment taught me the most profound lesson of my life and altered how I look at coaching. I realized on that day the State titles and championships won are truly secondary to the relationships we build. Working toward goals are great but the definitive accomplishment in all that work is rather shallow if we don’t create meaningful relationships along the way. As coaches and teachers we may never really know the true value of the moments we share with our athletes and students. Losing Matt made me realize how his experiences on earth were highlighted by what he did in the wrestling program and the deep and meaningful relationships he developed in his short life. Every once in awhile when we are chasing down those titles and grinding away at the sport we need to remind ourselves of what is truly important as there’s no guarantee it will last for long.