A Humorous Lesson In Humility
As a coach, my dad had a gift for motivating his athletes and sizing up his competition. The people who know my dad best know he loves to tell stories, and in these stories, he tends to brag. He is not, however, a typical braggart. His accolades most often honor his athletes and not himself because most great coaches know that their abilities have limits. The performance, ultimately, falls on the athlete.
He was a contradiction of terms. He was confident and proud, yet an underlying current of humility ran in his veins.
Back when he was coaching, my dad would not think of bragging until the competition was over. There was always an air of mystery about my dad that way. He was a contradiction of terms. He was confident and proud, yet an underlying current of humility ran in his veins. He always considered bragging in the moment to be poor sportsmanship, not to mention lousy strategy.
The following is a true story of patience on my dad's part. It is also a lesson in humility for his rival coach.
The Effingham Invitational Cross Country Meet
The lesson begins at the Effingham Invitational Cross Country meet in the fall of 1978. That was the year Mike Jackson was a senior. Even though Blue Mound was a small school, Mike was known around the state as a standout runner.
The Effingham Invitational hosted schools from all over central and southern Illinois. The size of the school didn't matter. Good runners from small schools could attend if they felt they could run with the big dogs. The thing about the larger schools is they often completely underestimated the runners who attended from small schools. Most coaches, however, did their research, and in 1978 they knew Blue Mound was coming with a contender. But there was one coach from down around St. Louis who didn't know anything about Blue Mound High School, Coach McDonald, or Mike Jackson.
An Unlikely Friendship
Just prior to the start of the meet, my dad befriended the coach of that St. Louis team. This was an unusual friendship of two opposite coaches. The St. Louis coach was dressed in a flashy tracksuit and wore a fancy wristwatch that he could use as a stopwatch. He was loud and overly confident, and he could not stop talking about his start runner, Timmy. My dad, I'm certain, wore blue jeans, Red Wing boots, and a Blue Mound Knights hat. He was probably also wearing Ray Bans to conceal his game face.
When the St. Louis coach was bragging on and on about his boy, my dad was quietly sizing up Mike's competition. Not long after the start gun sounded, the boisterous coach asked my dad if he wanted to ride in his golf cart to the mile checkpoint. Finding the conversation intriguing so far, my dad got in the cart and headed to the mile marker with his talkative companion.
My dad was secretly enjoying his pain and feeling a little vindicated for having to endure all the prideful boasts of Timmy's greatness.
The Race Is On
When they arrived at the mile checkpoint, the St. Louis coach moved with a great gesture to check the elaborate stopwatch on his wrist.
"My boy ought to be coming around that corner about now," he boasted. "He hasn't been beaten all year."
My dad recalled hearing that statement -- my boy hasn't been beaten all year -- more than a few times on their cart ride. It was probably pretty hard for him to refrain from mentioning a few facts and statistics about his own boy, but he did.
When the first runner emerged from the woods, it was Mike, and in all honesty, my dad was a little relieved. In a complete and utter state of confusion, his cart-buddy bellowed, "Hey! That's not my boy!"
With a grin, my dad replied, "I know. That's my boy."
The Atmosphere Changes
The big city coach was dumbfounded. A little more guarded now he headed the cart to the second-mile marker. This checkpoint was laid out much like the first, where the runners emerged from around a wooded corner, so the leader was a well-kept secret through most of the second-mile leg of the race.
In only a few minutes, the atmosphere in the cart had drastically changed. The once boastfully confident big city coach suddenly seemed insecure, quiet, and maybe a little embarrassed. The anticipation of not knowing who would emerge from the woods was excruciating for Timmy's mentor. My dad was secretly enjoying his pain and feeling vindicated for having to endure all the previous prideful boasts of Timmy's greatness. The big city coach checked his watch and scoured the edge of the woods, fearing the outcome. Once again the leader of the pack came thundering out of the woods, and it was not Timmy.
A Lesson in Humility
"Your boy is good. But can he finish?" the nervous coach asked.
"Yep," my dad replied, trying not to show his emotions.
By this time, Timmy had cleared the woods, and his coach was yelling, "Catch him, Timmy! He's a finisher! He's for real!"
And they were off to the finish line. The best part of Mike's race was always the last leg. If Timmy hadn't closed the gap by now, he wasn't going to. Yet his coach remained optimistic.
"My boy hasn't been beaten all year. He's gonna finish strong." He sounded overly compelling like he was trying to convince himself.
Unlike the first and second miles of the race, the finish line was a long, visible stretch, and by this time, the spectators could see the race leader in his final kick. It was Mike, and he had stretched his lead over the competition. The St. Louis coach was livid. "Come on, Timmy! Catch him! Catch him!" But his rants were in vain. Timmy was too far back, and Mike's final kick was too strong. As Mike crossed the finish line in record time, my dad turned to Timmy's coach. In a calm and matter-of-fact tone, he said what he'd been dying to say all morning long: "That's my boy! He hasn't been beaten all year!"