I don’t remember the restaurant, but I remember the meal – something like a cheeseburger and a basket of fries. The decor I remember reminds me of Ground Round, but I don’t think we ate in town that night. We went further out for some reason.
I was somewhere in the 8th grade – or at least in middle school. I don’t remember the which season it was or what I was doing or whether or not this part happened before or after the start of the Gulf War.
My poor dad. Sitting there, completely caught in a Catch-22.
I grew up a “husky” kid. I always played rec league soccer and made my way as a defender who could play the angles and kick the ball far. However, I really wanted to play football. Mom would have none of that because of the specter of injuries.
That night, though, after I asked for tenth, hundredth, or thousandth time, my mom turned to my dad and said, “Charles, you played football and soccer. Tell him which one you liked better.”
Poor mom. Poor dad. He said it quickly; he kind of smiled; I kind of won: “Football.”
So, freshman year I joined the team and got my ass handed to me. “Huksy,” despite the breed’s image, does not translate into “able to run while carrying a lot of weight” when applied to overweight boys. However, I kept at it. I lost some weight and then put it back on more purposefully. I memorized plays and gained confidence running them. I made some friends. I survived some mild hazing. I hung out with some of the coaches the same way I hung out with many adults – being an adult-pleaser and only child and all.
I became a middle-of-the-road high school athlete filling out the roster and the line.
During my time in high school – and before I got injured and began the recurring dreams about returning to the field – my coaches were an idiosyncratic bunch. The head coach road a Harley in spandex shorts, had a mullet, and kept alligators. We ran a Wing-T offense with pulling guards and tackles, so he talked a lot about turning and shaking hands with the midget. The freshman coaches seemed like erstwhile members of the A-Team – mostly in the Hannibal and Murdoch veins. At some point a reservist kid not much older than us joined the staff and taught us “violence of action across the territory objective” and other young soldier speak. There was also this former Mr. Connecticut-turned-sports-psychologist who was a kind of hero to us, but also made things awkward for us with the upperclassmen by saying things like, “You’ve got legs like tree trunks!”, and by holding us up as examples of industriousness for lazy – and otherwise incapacitated – juniors and seniors.
And then there was Coach McCabe, the family man, who worked mostly with upperclassmen, mostly with skilled positions, and mostly with defense. I worked with him some, but not always. Coach McCabe had the easy authority of a teacher who cared supremely for kids and of a coach who was excellent at his job. He also taught gym.
And he played a hell of a badminton game. Like, Olympic.
When you partnered up and played badminton with Coach McCabe or against him, you knew you were in for it. It was like playing tennis at ten paces. Top spin. Back spin. Slices. Drops. I think Coach McCabe played badminton like that to model excellence and to show how much fun a person could have while trying to be excellent.
Coach didn’t give up on kids. He didn’t let them off, either. He kept at them and convinced them they could be the people and athletes he could see them being. He played pick-up badminton in gym class in the same way he coached football. He wasn’t out to win; he was out to be surpassed by kids trying to be excellent and to have fun. He was out to help us see what we could do alone, together, and with fulfillment.
It’s not like I can say I was any part of his life these past 16 years, but I can say this:
He stayed a part of mine.
And I think that’s the essence of teaching and coaching. We get paid for our time, but that’s neither the real price of our work nor our real reward.
We try to give away the best pieces of ourselves – and when we find excellence, we try to make sure our kids know that it comes from and belongs to them.
That’s what Coach McCabe did. May he rest in peace, and may we remember to be excellent like he taught us.