Yesterday I was reading a great book in which the author mentioned today’s shortage of heroes. That spurred me to write this about one of my heroes. I realize that it is too long and could benefit from an editor, but since I don’t have one, here it is, long and unedited.
At 8:00 A.M. on New Year’s morning, my training buddy Lamont and I were at the track for a speed workout. This wasn’t a result of a resolution; we punish ourselves throughout the year. Running 400 intervals is crazy for men our age, we’ll both admit. If asked why I do it, I’d probably say, “I don’t know.” And if you would have told the high school me that I would be running quarters twenty years later, I would have laughed.
My first two years of high school were a mess, despite my having good people in my life. I got to a point where I knew that I needed to make some major changes. The most obvious was that I needed to be more active—I couldn’t handle idle time.
My tenth grade year, I went to the athletic director, whose name or face I can’t recall. “I want to be in athletics,” I said. “What can you do?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. After a few more words and a smile, the coach sent me on my way.
The next year, there was a new athletic director, so I thought I’d try again. I had some friends who ran track and cross-country, and I thought that with some effort I might be able to run. I went in Coach Jack Wilson’s office expecting to be sent out. “Why do you want to be in athletics?” he asked me. “I need to make some changes,” I told him. “We work hard out here.” “Yes sir.” “Can you work hard?” “Yes sir, I can try.” “Winter track starts next Monday after school. You’re welcome to come.”
Through the winter and regular track seasons, I expected to be the slowest on the team. My only goal was to work hard enough for Coach Wilson to not tell me to get lost. He never wasted time by having me try field events or sprints. Instead, he teamed me up with the long distance runners from the beginning.
Back then I thought that two miles was a long way to race and that success required endurance rather than speed. So I couldn’t understand why, week after week, Coach Wilson had us doing speed workouts. Grueling, lunch resurrecting ladders, 400 repeats, and, especially when it was raining, hills. But no one questioned him. Week after week, we got faster, though I wasn’t smart enough to make the connection.
Coach Wilson rarely encouraged me with a “good job.” The best compliment he paid me was when he told my mother that I “had a big heart,” which meant that I tried hard despite having no talent. But there was something motivating in his presence; I just wanted to please him. Still, as I make the turn on the track, I see him in his khakis and wind breaker, standing quietly while watching his stop watch. When I get to him I hear, “Get out of your comfort zone, Bird.”
I also hear him when I’m in the weight room. I remember him watching me do squats one morning before school. “I wish you would work that hard for me on the track,” he said. His message was always the same, regardless of how he put it: work harder.
Until my grandfather died, I always made sure that I was clean-shaven on days that I knew I would see him. I don’t remember him ever telling me to. I just knew that it was something he expected. Coach Wilson was the same. If he was around, everyone was on their best behavior. We ate better in the cafeteria. We wouldn’t dream of drinking a coke around him. One time I smarted off to another teacher. The worst punishment I got was that Coach Wilson found out. He never yelled, and I don’t recall ever being paddled by him, though I was by several other coaches at different times. But this small man with his flat-top, quiet, serious gaze, and sixty something years of wisdom, invoked more fear and respect in me than anyone other than my grandfather ever has.
By the last track meet of my senior year, Coach Wilson expected a good effort out of me. When I slacked off that morning in the two-mile, he punished me by taking me out of the mile (my favorite race), and putting me in the 800 (which he knew that I hated.) “How should I run it?” I asked. “As hard as you can,” he said.
The last time I saw Coach Wilson, I was getting ready to leave for college. He told me that I needed to walk on to the college track and cross-country teams. I didn’t realize then what a compliment that was, nor what a great man it was who was paying me the compliment. Regrettably, I didn’t take his advice.
Coach Wilson often told us to never quit running; that it would help us in every area of our lives. He was right. I still haven’t become the person I want to be, but Coach Wilson’s influence, along with the love for running that he instilled in me, has brought me a little closer. And even though I haven’t seen him in over 20 years, I still want to make him proud. I guess that’s the reason I was running 400’s on New Year’s morning.