The coach, Vic Jones, was loud and surly. He growled a lot. And he frowned a lot. No, it was more of a scowl.
Thanks to the biting winter temperatures, those first practices were endless wind sprints in an auxiliary gym, followed by laps through hallways. Then more wind sprints... and more laps.
They were brutal, unending, and smelly.
I tried to when every sprint, to be first to finish the laps... in the hope that Coach Jones might notice me.
Coach eventually did notice me that year. The first time he yelled my name I jumped as if a cannon had gone off behind me. He left me alone most of the time. By the end of my freshman year, I felt lucky to be told "You could have gone faster."
My sophomore year I started to win, which meant I heard more from Coach. I was still scared to death of the man, but I wanted desperately for his approval. When I thought winning now and then was enough, he kicked my ass.
The next year I won most of the time, and Coach had a lot to do with that. He pushed me hard, challenged me, and kept his praise a scarce commodity. I did get the occasional raised eyebrows and slightest hint of a smile when I set a good time. But he knew, somehow, that there was more in me, and he worked me like hell to get it out.
By my senior year, I was as good of an athlete as I would ever be. I'd absorbed the work ethic that Coach had soaked me in over me for the previous 3 years. I was fast, and strong, and knew my races better than anyone I would race against until the state meet.
After four years, Coach was my biggest supporter. The scowl was gone. There were no more harsh words meant to push me further. He knew he didn't need them anymore... they'd served their purpose. That year, Coach smiled, a lot. He'd joke with me, give me a wink to let me in on the tough-guy act he was giving the younger boys. He'd even put his arm around me while we talked about a race.
By the end of my senior year, Coach Jones was more than a coach, more than a mentor, he was my friend.
Coach Jones died earlier this month.
The last time I saw Coach was many years ago. He'd heard I was in town and came way out into the country to my parents' house to see me and catch up.
That evening he paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received. I will keep it private, between me and Coach, but it has stayed with me, and lifted me, to know that such a wonderful man thought so highly of me.
Coach Jones quite literally changed my life simply by believing in me, challenging me, and helping me become a better athlete, leader, and person. And he didn't do it with words. He did it the hard way, with action, time, attention, presence.
It's a rare person who can recognize potential and bring it out of someone who doesn't even see it in themselves.