Intense, meaningful relationships

It's the hottest days of the summer, and football fields are sprouting squads of skinny boys in equipment too big for them. It's enough to make former players reminisce. Often with a sigh.

That was my reaction to John Grisham's Bleachers (2003), a short novel I just listened to on tape. If you only know Grisham from his legal thrillers, you'll have a treat in this story of players remembering their glory days. Middle-aged men, not all from the same squads but having shared a common experience, gather on the giant bleachers of Eddie Rake Field, looking out onto the manicured grass that only the god-like Messina Spartans were allowed to trod. Eddie Rake was dying of cancer, and his boys were there to attend the funeral.

Rake had come to Messina at age 28, to take up a team with no expectation of success. In the following decades he made small and slow players into winners. There was no tyrant equal in training, no motivator better in pep talks, no person his players ever loved or hated as much. He used the same plays every year, demanded the same perfection and at halftime, with his team four touchdowns ahead, shouted about the sloppy play.

Probably most former football players can imagine themselves in the conversations in Grisham's novel. I certainly had no trouble, and it's been 49 years since I was a smallish 16-year-old senior on the worst team my high school ever had. We had talent, maybe even at the quarterback position, but we'll never know, because he never had time to get a pass off. We didn't have an Eddie Rake.

Rake did what all coaches want to do: develop a player's abilities, motivate the player to go beyond them, and teach that he who wants to win most usually does. A full effort does not guarantee winning, but anything less guarantees defeat. Respect is earned by performance, not by race or gender or class.

At no time was this clearer than when Eddie Rake forced integration on Messina High School. My own Oklahoma high school integrated because of football. We were being clobbered by integrated teams, and everyone knew good players were south of the tracks that divided the town into two distinct communities. Rake told his players to "make this work." I was among those told that too, but by the principal, not the coach.

The influence of a coach can be tremendous. Each of us has in us more resources than we can imagine, more than we are willing to explore until a coach demands it. Parents may expect our best or try to demand it. But parents are parents, and they are too much in touch with feelings and love and the future. A coach is different. The relationship may not be as close as with Mom or Dad, but it is often more intense than with any other adult a young person will meet.

Coaching is so valuable, and teamwork so essential to our culture, that we should wonder whether it is right to have huge high schools where so few have access to the experience. Relying on others, and having others rely on you, is a lesson for life. Nowhere else in our culture are you judged absolutely on competence, and the test is unforgiving. It is also public.

Eddie Rake's boys, one after the other, describe how he influenced their lives. Not all were successes. A couple became criminals, a few lawyers and ministers. But none could forget his lessons, and in every important moment in life, they would ask themselves, "What would coach think?"

Grisham's book is, of course, a work of fiction, but it rings true to life.

I was not a great coach myself, but soccer was new to downstate Illinois at the time I coached it. When one spends hours a day and entire weekends with young people, and with those who shared the responsibilities, the relationships become close. Having learned personally what it meant when a team was not in shape and didn't study, I emphasized running and scholarship. Believing that women were at a disadvantage in not sharing men's teamwork experience, I invited them on the team. Since I was asked for a lot of academic and personal advice, my coaching became about much more than scoring goals. Good thing, too, since scoring skills are hard to teach to anyone who never saw a soccer ball before age 18.

Looking back on a 40-year career as a teacher and coach, I'm more likely to talk about players and games than publications or classes. I was no Eddie Rake, but it was a great experience.

All of this said, one should not overestimate the role of a coach or of sports. Though they can do much for a young person, they can't do everything. Parents are more important. But they can sure use the help.

William L. Urban coached club and varsity men's soccer at Monmouth College from 1968 to 1981, then helped start its women's soccer program. He is Lee L. Morgan professor of history and international studies at the college.

Peoria Journal Star July 31, 2005, A5.