It’s been nearly a decade since my college track coach was killed in a tragic skiing accident. And I’m not sure why, but he’s been on my mind lately, more so than usual. There’s always been a special place in my heart for the two men who coached me, and it left a gaping hole in my life when I lost one of them, even though we’d barely spoken anymore. But when I learned of his death in 2008, it crushed me. So as I often do, the only thing I could do to cope was write; so I wrote something on the website of his obituary.
Coach Howe and I had quite an up-and-down coach-athlete relationship. Our personalities were so alike that we often disagreed, clashed, and argued. But I think that through all of it, we both maintained a reluctant respect for one another; I for his coaching, he for my athletic ability, and each other for who we were. Thankfully, years later, after he was no longer my coach and I was no longer his athlete, we made our peace. And for that, I will forever be thankful.
In the song, “Living Years,” the lyrics say, “It’s too late when we die to admit we don’t see eye-to-eye.” These words could not be more true of my thoughts and feelings.
As a freshman in college, I attended Emporia State University on a Track & Field scholarship. However, during the spring track season, I planned to transfer to Friends University to run Track and Cross Country there instead. Coach Howe, the Friends University head track coach, was very pleased at my inquiry and immediately asked to meet me. We toured the Friends University campus and I made my decision to transfer there the following year. Coach Howe and I bonded almost immediately. My first two seasons with Coach Howe were incredibly fun and beneficial. I worked in his office that first year and we grew very close. He taught me a lot about life that year. As we qualified for the National Track Meet the following year, Coach Howe, myself, and my teammates all grew into a very family-like group; something of which Coach Howe was pleased and proud to be a part.
The third year, my relationship with Coach Howe began to slowly deteriorate. I think we both began to see that the reason we started to have difficulties with each other was simply because we were so much alike. Ironically enough, years later, when I was a coach, I found myself modeling my own style of coaching after his.
As time passed, our disagreements grew in magnitude until we reached the point that we barely spoke. I quietly finished my college track career and moved on.
Several years later, I was coaching at a Cross County meet, coaching at the high school from which I graduated. Coach Howe happened to be in attendance and we briefly spoke. We exchanged pleasantries as two acquaintances that had not seen each other in a significant amount of time, and as I was working to help facilitate the organization of the meet, I looked at him and said, “This whole coaching thing is harder than it looks. You really gain a lot of respect for people who do this when you have to do it yourself.” He smiled, looked at me, and replied, “Thanks, Kurt. I really appreciate that.” We made eye-contact for a brief moment, as if, for the both of us, that exchange of appreciation was our olive branch, and we had finally made our peace after all those years. It was a look of mutual respect and forgiveness.
That was the last time we spoke.
In retrospect, I have come to realize that he taught me so much. We as human beings learn more from our struggles than we do from our successes. As I struggled through the end of my college track career, I learned a lot about life, people, and myself. And I credit many of those lessons to Coach Howe. He taught me more than I think he ever knew he did.
But as the song goes, “I just wish I could have told him in the living years.”
Take a moment. Tell the people you appreciate that you appreciate them.
Take a moment. Tell the people you love that you love them.
I didn’t get to tell Coach Howe all the things I had to say.
I really do wish I could have told him in the living years.
In the movie Stand By Me, Richard Dreyfus’ character, Gordie, writes about his friend Chris, whom he’d just learned was killed, saying, “Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.”
It had been several years since I last spoke to Coach Howe at that cross country meet, and yet, I knew instantly that I’d miss him. I know he’d be deeply disappointed in the choices I’ve made as an adult, but I can’t help but think that he’d be one of those people who I could call and say, “I know it’s been rough, but can we talk?” And he would say, “Of course.” That’s just the kind of man he was, and that’s the kind of man I want to be.
Coach Howe and I were more alike (and had more in common) than anyone will ever know. The truth is, I keep several of his secrets; he kept all of mine. And as our relationship deteriorated with the passage of time, it was me who lacked integrity, not him. He was a flawed role model, not because of his flaws, but because he fought and overcame them. I didn’t admire him because he was perfect; I admired him because he was broken, but never fell apart. He was a stronger man in his weakest moments than I could ever have hoped to be in my strongest moments. I wish I could have been more like him.
I guess I just miss my coach.