The moment I felt the punch to the gut was when I pulled the first offense off the field. We were ahead by a large margin and the time had come to put the young guys in. This was it. It was such a powerful sense of loss amidst an overwhelming victory. I had called my last play. I would not be putting these guys back out there to run an offense they had executed better than I had envisioned in a thousand doodles. This was it. We wouldn’t work together anymore. None of us wanted it to end. We didn’t need to say it. We just knew.
On this day 13 years before I had been in Seattle. My father was in the hospital and I hopped a cross country flight to go see him. I had just spent a difficult season as the offensive coordinator at a local college. I had filed for divorce, attempted to reconcile and then discovered during my trip west that there was a reason I had filed for divorce. My life was that kind of crazy. It would get worse of course.
But within that shattered mess was a chance. I applied for and got the job I always wanted. Maybe not where I wanted, or had envisioned but that job nonetheless. That dozen years of life is a blur; bubbles and lines of every imaginable nuance of good and bad. But that job was always there. There was always something to do to get myself or someone a little better. It filled my mind when I was left with nothing. It took up space in my thoughts protecting me from seemingly endless power surges of awful.
I saw my two eldest sons moved far away, then really far away. But I found someone awesome to share my life with. I had two more amazing kids. I fought my way out of having been left with nothing. I made it through cancer. My eldest sons and I remain close despite the distance.
I kept putting off that moment when the job would end. I couldn’t envision it. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to keep doing the job. But in those last couple of days it became sad in such a good way. So many people came up and said incredibly nice things. Words like impact, change, taught, showed, important, difference, and thank you. I covered up in the corner. I tried to not let these jabs of kindness get to me, break me. Occasionally one would land I had not expected and I would be overwhelmed. The stories. The gestures. The words. The gifts. At least 50 guys who had played for me made it back to our game or the banquet the night before. They shook my hand and I gave em one last neck hug and told them I loved them. Fathers, proud and admirable men, wrote to me thanking me for confirming what they had been trying to teach their sons. Moms sent pictures of their sons at youth camp with a young coach; then of those same sons who were now young men with a coach on the verge of being an old man.
Then there was that last game day. Thanksgiving. A gorgeous morning. I got a text from the godfather of one of my kids. He said enjoy the day. Take in the sites, the sounds, the smells. I’m so glad he sent that because I did just as he had said. This was not going to be a sad day. It was going to be a celebration. Not mine, but ours. Especially the seniors who said they had my back and would make sure I went out a winner. The ones who were down time and again but kept getting back up. These guys were my kinda guys. So were the younger players who stuck out a month of practice with no JV games just to be a part of something special.
During pre-game warm ups I blew the whistle and pulled them all over. This field we were on was one I was familiar with, having coached on it more than a decade before. I pointed over to a hill near the game field and told them that’s where I first started coaching. I told them how the players I had then would push heavy bags up a hill over and over again. No complaining. They just did the work. I told them how those players turned out to be successful lawyers and business men, coaches and even a movie star who has granted over 200 wishes for terminally ill kids. I tell them that this is what it’s all about. The man you become.
Three days off followed that last game. Three of the hardest days I’ve ever had. I won, but I’m lost. I think about moving, I think about staying. I think about taking on new jobs and then taking a respite. I think about writing, I think about listening. I think about assembling memories, I think about putting the unassembled pieces in a box until they won’t overwhelm me and I can piece them together.
I don’t know what to do. I have school work to catch up on. I gotta get back to being able to walk normal again. I have to help my senior players find a place to play college ball. I’m running the weight room for the returning players until they hire my replacement. I have to go for my annual cancer test and see if I get another 1 year contract with life.
An old coach tells me to look forward. My wife tells me to be patient. My youngest son tells me he’s glad we’ll have more time to do stuff. My oldest son tells me, in his own way, he wants to learn how to lead.
I got a couple more notes today. One from a father, who, like so many, has spent more time overseas at war than with his family. He said I eased his worries because he knew his sons would be coached by me and taught about life during their important formative years while he was away. I cant do his words justice. That one put me down for an eight count.
I feel everything and nothing at the same time. The only constant feeling is grateful. I’m glad I had a chance. I’m glad people I’ve come to care so much about feel that I’ve been a help to them.
I come back to the words I said at the end of our last practice. Fighting back the tears I said, When you’re fully invested, there is not a greater game in the world than football.
I was all in for 12 years. Invested to the point of tears. It wasn’t easy. It was more than worth it. We got better. Together.