When I was a kid my dad told me, “Never pick on anyone because you just don’t know what they are going through and how close they may be to giving up.” That advice has apparently stuck with me and has served me well. My dad knew something when he told me that and I’m sure had an experience where you can’t always read a book by its cover.
This past weekend on our way to the Olympic Peninsula for our final invitational tournament of the season I loaded up the kids in the van at 6:00 am. We were behind the high school on the dark service road with the last of the nights rain falling.
It reminded me of a time early in my career. Like so many moments these days it hit me like it was yesterday. We were headed to some tournament, it may have been the same one as Saturday I can’t remember. It was a dark winter morning with kids slumbering into the vans, trying to continue what their parents had interrupted only minutes before. I distinctly remember one of my better wrestlers didn’t show up that morning many years ago. I waited and stalled asking if anyone knew anything but of course the half conscious kids laying in the seats had no clue. It started to get late and after a few futile phone calls to his house I left my office, climbed back into the van resigned to the fact he wasn’t showing up and headed out.
The young man in question was a quiet, smart, brown haired, hundred and ninety pounder that backed into the sport at the prodding of my assistants and I. By the time he was a senior he was pretty good. Not necessarily good enough to beat out our 178 pound kid in challenges but good enough to be a potential state placer. He was one of those kids you never had to worry about. A good student who was steady and always where he was supposed to be. That was the strange thing about him not showing up that morning.
I was still a young head coach, in my early thirties but having already had a fair amount of success I was hungry and driven to build a winning squad. Having one of my better kids not make the van for what I probably deemed as the most important thing he or I had to do that Saturday grated on me as we rolled down the highway. The tournament came and went and I remember none of it to this day. Couldn’t tell you who won or lost or even what our team placed. What I do remember is how irritated I was that this kid never showed and it festered all day Sunday during my day off. I planned the ass chewing I was going to give him Monday before practice with the possibility of collecting his singlet and sending him on his way. I was actually that upset. This kid had violated the basic foundation of loyalty I was trying to build and the concept of accountability to a team.
By Monday and our meeting I had calmed down a bit but still unloaded a pretty good verbal beat down. He had said his alarm clock didn’t go off or something to that nature. I bought his story as much as I could buy any seventeen year olds story (which isn’t much) and moved on. Nothing was ever said about it from that point on although I will admit I had lost a substantial bit of trust in him. I just couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind who valued the team and sport could be late or miss a van. Admittedly I was a tad tunnel visioned.
A couple weeks passed and like most issues when working with young people this too faded into the dusty annals of history. One random morning I was in my office and a teammate of his came in and asked if he could speak with me. He said he wanted to make sure I knew the truth about why his teammate didn’t show up for the van the other weekend. He went onto tell that the morning we left the one-ninety pounder’s dad came out and told him he couldn’t leave because he hadn’t told him the night before he had a tournament. A subsequent argument ensued and his dad grabbed a baseball bat and smashed the headlights of his car (he had paid for with his own money). In a panic, knowing he would be letting his team and coaches down he grabbed his gym bag and ran the four miles from his house to the high school in hopes of catching us before we left. Exhausted and cold he staggered into the parking lot only to find it empty and the vans long gone.
I was taken aback by the story and couldn’t wait to talk to the kid and apologize for ripping him for not showing up. His teammate however told me that he promised not to say anything as that was the hundred and ninety pounders wishes. I had really laid into him in the office weeks before and railed about the importance of loyalty and commitment but couldn’t violate the trust of his teammate. He was proud and ultimately didn’t want anyone to know his struggles at home. The three of us carried this giant elephant around for the rest of the season without saying a word. My respect and admiration for this kid grew daily while still respecting the fact that he did not want anyone to know the truth. He lived with me and his teammates thinking he neglected to make the bus to save face for his family.
At regionals that year he was sick with the flu and barely squeaked threw to state. As a fourth place qualifier his chances of placing were slim and I don’t think anyone expected much more than a couple handshakes and a few free meals for him. Astonishingly, with three consecutive wins he made it to the state finals. Ironically, his teammate he lost to in challenges at 178 ended up placing third that year.
For the first time in his wrestling career his parents came to watch him wrestle. As a three year starter and numerous home matches and tournaments this was the only time they took the time to support their son. He lost that night to a better wrestler.
After the season we talked about the morning he missed the van. I apologized for coming down so hard on him and he of course said it was ok and that I didn’t know. He graduated with honors and joined the military after high school. Many years later, just by chance I bumped into him and his fiancé walking on the boardwalk by the Everett water front the day before their wedding. I finally had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated him and told his fiancé she couldn’t have found a more loyal guy. It’s true she really couldn’t have.
I have not seen him since but he taught me a lot more than I ever taught him and I will never forget the lesson I learned from that cold winter morning so many years ago.