What Really Counts
What Really Counts
I never got a chance before his passing to thank Mr. Johnny Bell for a job well done. He was a humble man who coached high school track more years ago than I care to recall. Our paths crossed daily for many months in my young life, even though I spent very little time with the man.
As a high school freshman, I had a longing to play baseball, which I considered the ultimate life experience. I followed the Series closely, collected cards of professional players, and watched every game at any level I could find. I had played little league ball, but I was realistic enough to know I would never be a big leaguer. That did not impede my imagination.
When tryouts closed in on us, I could taste the state championship, though I had not yet purchased and oiled a new mitt. I was ready. I could bat, field, and run, which made me a shoe-in. Did I make the team? Sure did – until just prior to the opening game. Our coach, Mr. B, approached me just outside the locker room on the way to practice.
“Son, I don’t know how to tell you this, but something’s come up.”
Apparently, he had a nephew who had just moved east from California. He was a baseball player. Second base, my position? You bet. Of course, I could stay on the team and get a freshman letter, but I would warm the bench all season. At fourteen, there was nothing more devastating.
Now, these were before the days of mommy writes a letter and hires a lawyer. I was out. My parents had no clue, in fact, that meant I could get another part-time job. To me, the term sports was defined as that which makes life worth living.
I faced another problem as well. I had a chance to make the National Honor Society in my sophomore year if, aside from any academic achievements, I demonstrated my well-roundedness by playing a varsity sport. The only alternative was the chess club, which would have subjected me to four years of ridicule in that era.
That might have been the last experience I ever had with depression, but I was so low I could have crawled under a snake’s belly with a top hat on. My friend, Jim Cully, approached me one day and asked me if I had tried out for the track team. I don’t recall even answering him. I knew nothing about it, and could have cared less. One of the great things about good friends is their ability to stay on your tail until you hate them enough to listen. So I did.
I went to track tryouts and entered every event. I was not strong enough or tall enough for the field events. I was a baseball player who learned to run as fast as I could to first base. There went the distance events. I had no preparation for the sprint events, and was quickly blown out of the water, coming in toward the end of every race. The slots for the mid-distance runs, the 200 and 400-meter semi-sprints, had already been filled. The remaining events were all relays.
The track team had practiced together all freshman season, so I was much like a skunk at a lawn party when I walked onto the track for the varsity- relay team tryouts. They planned to pick two units. There would be four runners in each unit, and nineteen kids were on the starting line. I had already lost six heats that day, so the prospects were grim.
When the gun sounded, we bolted like horses, once around the quarter-mile cinder track. I ran my heart out and came in tenth. The top four runners were separated from the group, and the remaining fifteen were asked to run another heat. Before the race began, the coach announced that he needed three more members on his squad. I still remember his words just before firing the starter pistol: “Just do the best you can. Nobody can ask more of you.”
As I rounded the last turn heading for the finish, I saw the problem ahead of me. Five runners were approaching the finish line, and I was in reaching distance of only one. I saw the first three cross the finish line, but I ran as fast I could to beat the kid ahead of me. In fact, I just barely squeaked in front of him by a head thrust and forward lunge in the final second – to finish fifth.
After losing eight heats that day, my body was spent. I remember sitting quietly in the rear of the late bus heading home, thinking about how unfair life really was.
Getting to school the following day was a nightmare. Dragging myself through the hallway to class was a death march. However, I remember so distinctly the position of my name on the hall bulletin board where the list of those who made the team appeared. I am quite sure breathing stopped for a few seconds, replaced by some type of functional shock.
I might not have enjoyed the best of upbringings, but I managed to learn right from wrong. At the three o’clock bell, I ran to the athletic department to speak with the coach, and I pointed out his obvious error. I had finished fifth.
“Didn’t you hear me say do the best you can?” he said.
I simply nodded.
“You ran as hard as you could after those kids had already coasted to completion. I need you.”
I stood there with my mouth open as he continued.
“Now hurry up and get dressed, kid, or I’ll throw you off the team!”
I enjoyed a terrific high school career, and managed to receive two track scholarships to college. I have had a wonderful education, and a fruitful life. I engaged in tough competitive sports after college, and learned how to provide for my family in difficult times - and I even became a rated chess player!
I just thought I should say, “Thank you, Coach Bell.”