“A Recovery Run: Introductions to running and to The Coach.”

I can’t remember when it first became an interest for me, but running has seemed to be a part of my life since grade school.  I grew up on the south side of Des Moines Iowa and went to a small Catholic grade school made up primarily of Italian families, descendants of Italian immigrants and the rest of us Anglo-Saxons of the area.  The parish and its school were named, what else, St. Anthony’s.

St. Anthony’s was one of eight or so Catholic grade schools included in the Des Moines area.  These schools competed against each other in sports such as basketball, football, and softball and especially track.  Once a year the schools would get together for “The Big Meet” held at the Catholic high school in Des Moines called Dowling, named after the Des Moines Diocese’s first bishop, Bishop Austin Dowling.

The “big meet” was a big deal for our St. Anthony’s track team since according to legend “we had never lost the big meet!”  Now, whether this was true or not, doesn’t matter, as a seventh grader coming into my first experience of running/track this was serious business and as much as I wanted to be part of the success and glory, I sure didn’t want to be the reason to lose the meet and end this legendary and historic streak.

There was a teacher at our school named Bob Grossing, Mr. Grossing.  Mr. Grossing in my eyes was a huge, a larger than life human being, with a booming voice and a quick temper.  As intimidating as he was to a 12 year old he was also fascinating to listen to as he taught.  He was very funny and very creative. He became a hero and mentor of sorts to me and while I feared making him mad, I respected him as a teacher and someone who taught me many life lessons in only two short years of being around him.  He taught us how to be tough, not just in running but also in life and taught us about being “Spartan-like” rigorous, disciplined and focused.  Years later after I had been ordained a Catholic priest in a interview on a local radio program, the host asked me who my favorite teacher was and without hesitation and without even thinking, I blurted out, “Mr. Grossing.”  I didn’t know at the time why I had uttered his name so easily and confidently, but it was true even though I couldn’t articulate the reasons why back then.

Even when I see Mr. Grossing now, I can never bring myself to call him “Bob” or to treat him with too much familiarity.  It’s always “Mr. Grossing” and will forever be the way I talk to him and describe him to others.  My respect for him was so great that when I was privileged to officiate at his wedding, I felt terribly uncomfortable leading him through the wedding vows when I was forced to say, “repeat after me, ‘I BOB take you Cindy to be my wife…’” Mr. Grossing was one of those people who directed me in life even at a young age.  I never wanted to ever let him down by being weak or by quitting something.

When we were in eighth grade Mr. Grossing along with the other junior high teachers decided that our class needed to put on a Christmas program to perform for parents and other such groups.  Mr. Grossing’s creativity inspired us to do things and perform that even now, as I look back were pretty darn good for eight graders.  A couple of friends and I were chosen to do a Perry Como pantomime of the Christmas song “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”  My friend Rory was Perry Como and I, with another friend Tim, were the two background singers.  While the music played Rory strolled about the stage lip-syncing Perry Como’s singing, looking cool and dapper while Tim and I danced ridiculously in unison behind him, taking time to build a fake snowman until it was time for our big moment of fake singing.  The parents loved it and so did the other groups of adults we performed for.  Mr. Grossing was always in the background looking on with grade pride.  We never wanted to disappoint Mr. Grossing, embarrass him or make him mad.

Later that year, Mr. Grossing inspired us again to sing and perform in a tribute to the “Roaring Twenties.”  We worked so hard on that musical and I honestly can’t remember ever going to class the second semester of eighth grade.  We built sets, sang songs and practiced all the time.  Looking back, it was an awesome feeling being part of something so good and so worthy of pride.  Of course this was all done in the early 1970’s so unless one of the dads had a 8mm movie camera and possesses a lost version of the production, our show and our talents are forever lost to time and only left to our imagination and memory.

Mr. Grossing was a man who inspired people to do things they never imagined they cold do.  He managed to inspire us guys, to sing and dance.  Not an easy thing to do for eighth grade boys, but he was able to and also managed to inspire us to do it all with great pride and even love.  He would later in my life, unknowingly inspire me to run faster and further than I ever imagined I could.

As much as we enjoyed Mr. Grossing’s influence, creativity and humor, there was another side of Mr. Grossing that we all dreaded.  When Mr. Grossing got angry, the whole school knew it.  He possessed a booming terrifying voice that caused even students in the other rooms to shutter.   We always deserved to be yelled at whenever it happened.  Unfinished homework, screwing around, “playing grab ass,” in class, poor test scores would always elicit the wrath of Mr. Grossing.  We were petrified in the moment and even if we weren’t the objects of his wrath.  We all silently prayed that it would all soon end.   I don’t remember Mr. Grossing doing anything but yelling at students.  Believe me, that was plenty.  Back then, we never dreamed of telling our parents that we got in trouble with Mr. Grossing.  I always assumed I deserved it and he was right.  Why tell my parents and risk getting yelled at again?  I knew my parents were on his side on everything. I never imagined that my parents would think anything of it or like now a days, be offended when a teacher yells at their child.   For me, it was part of school and the best way to deal with it was to never make Mr. Grossing yell in the first place.

For some reason my friends and I were constantly being accused of “playing grab ass” by our teachers and coaches.  Now I never really knew what playing grab ass actually meant but my friends and I knew that we never liked being accused of the possibility of actually gabbing someone’s ass.   To an adolescent boy the idea was absolutely horrifying that you could ever be accused of participating in the alleged activity.  Being accused of it would surely give fodder to our friend’s teasing and heaven forbid if the girls ever found out that we were playing a game called grab ass.  The consequences of that would spell social dome for anyone.  I mean, could there be anything more embarrassing for an adolescent boy then to be found participating in any such a game?  Perhaps that is why teachers and coaches found that accusing boys of playing grab ass actually worked since whenever we were accused of it we stopped whatever we were doing immediately.  We really didn’t know what playing grab ass was and never knew what would lead a teacher to accuse us of such a thing, nevertheless we immediately stopped doing whatever we were doing for fear of people actually believing it were true, that we were indeed playing a game that involved gabbing someone else’s ass. Today as a coach I marvel how effective accusing adolescent boys of playing grab ass is in getting them to stop fooling around.  I mean try it sometime.  Watch how quickly adolescent boys stop in their tracks the minute you accuse them of “playing grab ass.”

It is a timeless phrase that has stood the test the time in classroom management and in restoring order in gymnasiums across the country.  Teachers and coaches throughout history owe that original frustrated coach (probably a P.E. teacher) who uttered for the first time “ALRIGHT YOU GUYS! QUIT PLAYING GRAB ASS!”  It works and no kid ever questions the validity of such an absurd and embarrassing accusation.  Maybe no one can quite define what it is or even describe what playing grab ass really is but everyone knows it when they see it and NO ONE wants to be accused of it, period.

Mr. Grossing was the track coach and he loved the role.  As an incoming seventh grader it was assumed that EVERY 7th and 8th grade boy would go out for track and most of the girls.  Sure there were a couple baseball and softball players who didn’t go out and they were tolerated, but clearly the track people were favored and fair or not, Mr. Grossing liked his track people better.

It seems hard to believe that track practice for our junior high team began as early and as February and as the date of the first practice drew near we began to dread it.  Practices were very very tough.  To this day, even after enduring 100 mile weeks, hill work outs and hard track workouts as an adult runner, those practices in seventh and eight grade were just as tough and demanding and maybe even more considering my age back then.

In mid February it was generally too cold for us to hold practice outside, not to mention snow and the fact that we didn’t have a track to run on, but when spring came Columbus Park was about four blocks away and that is where our team practiced on a makeshift grass “track.” That was another day we dreaded, the day when we went to Columbus Park for our first “track workout ” due to the new agony and pain that came along with having to do horrible intervals and repeats around the park.  To this day, whenever I drive past Columbus Park I think of those workouts.  While the park doesn’t look as big to me as an adult, I still see where we use to run and the layout of the 330yd loop including those awful three orange cones which were placed marking the end of the 880yd loop.  But in mid February we were only faced with surviving the “indoor practices” which had their own agonies.

The first day of seventh grade track practice and indeed my first running practice ever came on a dark dreary February Monday at 3:15p…3:15p exactly.  Adolescent boys are self conscious enough about their bodies, but getting changed from school clothes into running clothes for practice after school meant that all of us would have to cram into one of the small boys bathrooms and change together.  All of the childish humor, “grab ass” and self-consciousness taking place in those excruciating moments was almost unbearable for an extreme introvert like me.  My tact was to have everything placed in my bag in order as I would pull it all out and put it all on in order so I could put it all on as quickly as I could, throwing school clothes aside and throwing shirt, jock (yes “Jock” it was unthinkable not to wear one fearing scorn and ridicule from other boys if they knew or found out), sweat pants, shorts and sneakers.

You might be questioning the order in which I got ready, “sweat pants and then shorts,” but that is exactly how we wore it all.   For some reason having just sweatpants on was unfashionable and simply not cool.  Perhaps the look was too baggy for us cool athletes, so we decided to wear our gym shorts over the tops of our sweatpants resulting in a more pleasing, more athletic and “cooler” look, at least in our ill formed adolescent brains.  This style worked well in the colder days, but when it warmed up we decided it was too hot and wanted to run in just shorts, it took a Herculean effort and a great deal of flexibility to take our sweatpants off while keeping our shorts on standing in the middle of Columbus Park in full view of the world.  I’ve seen female athletes go through similar contortions when taking Under Armor off from beneath uniform tops before races, but I am forever thankful that this ridiculous male runner fashion of ours died out quickly and hopefully forever.   Seeing kids wear sweatpants and shorts this way now looks ridiculous as it no doubt did back then, but I always smile when I see a kid give the effort to try and look cool even though he has failed in everyone’s but his eyes.

Another version of this fad still has lasting value among some old school cross country and track coaches.  Every now and then I will see an old coach (50 years or older) wearing tights…yes tights with some very short shorts over the top.  Wearing either of these things separately for a man that age is comical enough and men of a certain age should never wear tights or short shorts in public.  Putting these two fashion blunders together is hysterical to see, but no doubt cool and impressive to the one wearing them.  Even so, I give these guys credit for being enthused about the sport and they are clearly old school runners themselves, likely running since the 1970’s when that running apparel was first introduced and for a time, in fashion.

Now a days kids and parents interested in getting into track and running have the opportunity to choose from a whole range of training shoes, spikes and racing flats.  With heal lifts, ortho inserts, shoes for over pronators and supinator, a parent can expect to pay upwards toward and exceeding $100 for just shoes, but back in 1973 standing there waiting for practice at the St. Anthony gym, prior to the first running boom, we didn’t know any better and Mr. Grossing made it simple for us and our parents by requiring us to simply buy and wear the old Chuck Taylor, canvas, high tops that were designed for basketball.  Looking back now, it seems outrageous, dangerous and even irresponsible to make anyone run in canvas high top basketball shoes.  These shoes were clearly designed as cheap basketball shoes, lacking any of the most basic support and cushioning standard in any running shoe today, but we just did it and no one ever raised any questions about it.  It never occurred to us to get different colors or styles.  There weren’t Air Jordon’s, Nikes or Adidas options to worry about.  We all had the white ones and we wore them for all our practices and even when we went out on longer runs. I don’t remember wearing them ever causing any problems for me other then simply being heavy and slow.  Even though there was the option of buying cheap canvas running shoes that were beginning to be sold at K-Mart and Woolco at the time, they were for “wusses” and unnecessary as far as we were concerned.

While we trained in the canvas high tops Mr. Grossing had a stash of track spikes of various sizes for the best runners to wear at meets and occasionally at certain practices.  While these spikes were cool and desirable back then, compared to spikes of today’s modern athlete, these things were primitive almost cruel looking shoes with virtually no support.  They consisted of just a base with the standard ½ inch spikes jutting out and covered with some sort of leather or maybe even heavy nylon. There were a limited number of these spikes available so they were only given to the best runners.  As awful as these spikes might have been compared to the space aged versions available today, we all wanted to be good enough to be given a pair by Mr. Grossing because that would surely mean we were fast enough to be deserving and better yet, had found favor with the coach.

So at exactly 3:15p that first practice in mid February, we all stood anxiously in the cafeteria cleared of tables and chairs, boys on one side, girls on the other and waited for the coach to enter.  The coach entered, no longer in dress pants, shirt and tie, but now in sweat pants and sweatshirt with a silver whistle hanging around his neck.  The veteran eight-grader boys began leading us in our stretching and we obediently followed our leaders with one eye following our coach pacing around the exterior of the cafeteria.  We worked through the list of stretches and the warm up routine which included old school 4 count burpees, 5 count burpees, finger tip push-ups, iron cross, hurdler’s stretch, butterfly and of course jumping jacks.  “1-2-3-ONE, 1-2-3-TWO, 1-2-3-THREE” was the cadence we barked out and we knew if we didn’t yell it out and in unison the coach would stop us and yell at us to do it all again.

Mr. Grossing’s voice as loud as it was normally, rose to an even more menacing level as it echoed off the hard brick walls of the cafeteria/gym when he grew angry with us.  During those times when we failed for one reason or another he would yell for us to start over and yell “YOU BETTER GET WITH THE PROGRAM OR PACK UP YOUR JOCK AND GET THE HELL OUT!”  We all cowered, shuttered and prayed that we would all indeed somehow “get with the program” so we didn’t have to “pack up our jock and get the hell out.”  As nerve wrecking as these times were for me, a young seventh grader, they were occasions for the life lessons of commitment, discipline and teamwork.  Looking back, I owe my later marathon success and even my success as a coach to the lessons, Mr. Grossing taught us back then in that cafeteria.

The Spartan thing to do…

Mr. Grossing was interested in Greek mythology particularly with the Athenian/Spartan War.  The Spartans were known to be rigorously self-disciplined, self-restrained, simple and frugal.  They were also known to be courageous in the face of pain, danger and adversity.  It was a theme for our team and indeed even in the classroom as Mr. Grossing would remind us of the toughness and self discipline that made the Spartans thrive.

Since it was cold and got dark early back then, in mid February we generally had two possible options for the day’s work out.  Sometimes we would go through some sort of circuit training workout which included “isometrics,” climbing the rope which had been earlier hung in the middle of the cafeteria or spending time being hooked up to bungee like cords connected to the wall while running in place in front of one of the coaches who observed us and corrected our running form.

The part of the circuit that I dreaded the most was the time we would spend “running stairs” supervised by one of the coaches.  The stairs that we ran were contained in a three-flight staircase leading from the first floor of the school to the second.  It was a small-enclosed staircase with no ventilation and hard linoleum steps.  We would do sets of steps of 15 minutes or so apiece, with short breaks between sets.  It was exhausting and our lungs burned in the dry enclosed air as our hamstrings and quad muscles screamed driving up the stairs under the screaming supervision of a coach.  Keep in mind that running these stairs was done in canvas high top basketball shoes while wearing our ridiculous get up of sweatpants under our gym shorts.  No one ever dreamed of wearing just shorts.  For some reason we were way to self conscious to do something like that.  After a time, as I got into shape, these “stair workouts” were not has crippling and as difficult as they were when we began and I began to feel like I was almost mastering them and today I am convinced that my relatively sound running form was at least in part due to running those stairs at St. Anthony’s School.  That stairwell is still there and once in awhile I’ll walk up them if I am ever in the old school for some sort of family/school/church function.

The other option for practice for us during those cold dark February days was to simply go outside and run.  Keep in mind how young we were, 12-14 year old boys and we were asked to go out in run in 20-degree temperatures in the growing darkness.  We never questioned the plan and neither did our parents.  We dutifully put on our regular winter clothes, that we had worn to school that day; coats; hats and mittens over our hooded sweat shirts, sweat pants (gym shorts over the top of course) and high top, canvas basketball shoes as we bravely stepped out in to the sharp cold winter air.  Later I began to love these runs, especially as we were enfolded in the heavy winter darkness.  It was something I found I did well.

Our school had been built at the edge of a river valley and one of the options for our runs would be to climb out of the river valley toward the south on the steep winding neighborhood roads.  The route began going straight up a steep half-mile hill that wound past the church, across Indianola Road and up through a residential Italian neighborhood toward “Powell’s House.”  At the top of the hill, at “Powell’s House” (a parish family’s home) we were to turn right where the course leveled out.  This first climb at this early part of the season proved to be the tipping point for many on our team and that first week more than a few quit track or magically discovered “throwing” and “jumping” as an alternative ways of participating in track.

Granted the first few times were miserable and I remember Mr. Grossing driving past us in his blue and white El Camino not so much encouraging us but merely making his presences known eliminating any possible temptations of playing grab ass while running in the neighborhood or worse yet quitting.  Personally, I didn’t need any more motivation than simply seeing the blue and white El Camino go by.  That was enough inspiration in itself even if it was more negative than positive motivation.

Getting to the top of the hill at Powell’s house was a tremendous anaerobic feet in itself, but this was just the beginning of the run.  Turning right, the route leveled out and was certainly more manageable, once I got in shape.  It seems crazy now, but these runs varied in length from 3 to even five miles, quite a challenge to any seventh and eighth graders, even today.  It must have been quite a site for neighbors to see this gaggle of junior high boys bundled up in winter coats, gloves, stocking caps and scarf plodding up the dark deserted streets sporting their Chuck Taylor high tops and their fashion statement of gym shorts over sweat pants in the dead of winter.

After a week of dealing with getting into shape, avoiding shin splints and simply getting into a routine, surprisingly I began to find these runs not nearly as daunting as they first seemed.  I almost looked forward to them and found that they were something I could do better than some of the better runners.   There was something about the challenge of it and the way it made me feel to be able to accomplish something that seemed so insurmountable to a young boy.  But it was more than the accomplishment and the challenge; it was the way it made me feel during and after the run was completed.  Later I would learn what I was experiencing was due to endorafins or “The Runner’s High.”

This first experience with running, looking back changed my life.  I found the solitude as well as the camaraderie I experienced during these runs introduced me into a new way of seeing things, my self and those around me.  While I was still only beginning to discover this life of running, those early successes in running turned out to be the gateway into a culture that I would be a part of for the rest of my life.

As the February of 1973 wore on I found myself even looking forward to practice knowing that the most we would do would be to stretch, bundle up and head outside for our long run.  Most of the team hated this routine, but I liked it since I found I was better at the long runs than most and I enjoyed the feeling of it all especially when I was able to do the maximum of what Mr. Grossing asked of us and then to finish well ahead of the rest, earning what I thought was more respect in the eyes of our coach.

Soon we were running five miles routes.  After we had turned right at Powell’s house our routes took us through the streets of the south side and eventually dumped us out onto a street called South Union.  We would run south toward Park Avenue where we would turn around and head straight back to school the way we had come.  Turning around at Park Avenue was significant because that point was very very close to my home.  Theoretically I could have easily run home, had I often wanted to, but turning around and continuing was a sign to me of my new found Spartan discipline and commitment to running.

My ease of running longer distances didn’t necessarily translate into speed or success.  I found that when we did shorter faster things in practice I was not very good.  Mr. Grossing had all sorts of cool names for some of our workouts.  Back in the 70’s the Vietnam War was still going on and Mr. Grossing as our social studies teacher was keen on weaving the things we were learning about in class into other parts of our day.  What could be cooler than to have workouts with threatening and menacing names such as a hill workout called “The Hồ Chí Minh Trail” named after the infamous “Hồ Chí Minh Trail in Vietnam?

We had workouts called “The Big Mile” where Mr. Grossing secretly told each of us a number and at a given lap around “The Big Mile the “rabbit” would take off and the others would try to catch him.  Whenever it was my turn to be the rabbit the others had a difficult time knowing it since my “taking off” looked very similar to our ordinary or recovery running.  Our warm up routine was called “San Jose,” but we never really knew why and not one of us dared to ask Mr. Grossing what it meant.  When the days were warmer and we would practice at Columbus Park, the coach would sometimes run late and as we stood there at the park waiting (likely participating in some form of playing grab ass), Mr. Grossing approaching the park in the El Camino, would roll down the window of his car and simply yell “SAN JOSE” a block or so before he arrived.  We quickly jumped, halting any activity that may be confused with playing grab ass and sprang to attention and began the San Jose routine.

Soon the weather tuned nicer, warmer, the snow melted away and now Columbus Park was turning green and drying out.  I had been thinking that I was almost mastering the whole track thing and began to set aside my preconceived dread and fear of it all.  The first day at Columbus Park proved that it was way too soon to set aside those fears.

The things we would do at Columbus Park had their own pain and I found I was weaker and not nearly as good as I thought I was at running track. Our “track” at Columbus Park consisted of a loop around the outside of the park consisting of orange cones, running around baseball backstops, drinking fountains and swimming pools. Eventually we were divided up into two groups “The Lobos” and “The Eagles.” The Eagles were the top runners and sprinters. The Lobos were the lesser runners that tended to be involved in longer races and or workouts. I was a Lobo and I remember dreading looking at the paper Mr. Grossing taped to one of the doors in the cafeteria, which contained the workouts for the day. Most often the Eagles were doing cool workouts with shorter faster things like 14x110yds or 12x220yds workouts, while we Lobos seemed always to be doing 8x330yds, 6x660yds or 5x880yds. I was terrible at all of it and as the season wore on I began to hurt and become very very sore.

As we got dressed for practice and headed off for the park, many asked to be taped and the smell of “Atomic Balm” and cream analgesic permeated the room. These things were only to be used by the better athletes and getting taped by one of the coaches was only to be done for the best runners. Needless to say, I qualified for neither being taped nor the use of Atomic Balm and so I simply hobbled off to practice suffering in silence.

Once at the park we warmed up and did our San Jose drills.  We later would get a student manager to help us.  Angel was a pretty fun loving girl in our class and loved being involved.  She would stand around and carry clip boards and cones for the coaches.  I remember one particular day at practice when for some reason Mr. Grossing felt our efforts were not good enough.  He lit into us about commitment, dedication, our lack of our Spartan efforts and ended with the standard “AND IF YOU DON’T GET WITH THE PROGRAM, YOU CAN PACK UP YOUR JOCK AND GET THE HELL OUT!”  Later we kidded Angel and told her if she didn’t get with the program she could “pack up HER jock and get the hell out.”  Thinking of that still makes me laugh even today.

The rest of the season went from bad to worse for me.  We had some preseason meets with junior high schools and even high school freshmen teams from schools such as Johnston and S.E. Polk.  Back then, these schools were way out outside of town even though today these schools have largely been absorbed by the city.  The added anxiety of competing at these foreign and seemingly far away places, for me added to the growing dread of running track in seventh grade.  Coupled with the fact that I was terrible and growing more and more embarrassed, made the goal of at least surviving track began to seem like a goal no longer worth it at all.  Still, quitting track was something I couldn’t let myself think of.  I was afraid of looking like a quitter and worse yet disappointing Mr. Grossing.  Finally after enduring pain, soreness and having to wear the ridiculous oversized track uniforms given to the slowest runners which while not only looking ridiculous but acted more like a parachute for guys like me, I had reached the point of decision.

It was April of 1973 and “The Big Meet” was still more than a month away and over a weekend I stewed and fretted over my decision to tell Mr. Grossing I was quitting track.  Not telling him was not an option.  He had taught me already about integrity and how to be a man.  Being honest and upfront with people was what a man did while avoidance and shrinking away from responsibility and honesty was “un-Spartan-like and weak.  But I had made my decision.  I was going to tell Mr. Grossing after school on Monday that I was quitting track.  I was afraid for many reasons.  I was afraid of being made fun of by my friends, being embarrassed over failing, and most of all I was afraid of Mr. Grossing’s being angry with me, but even more than that I was afraid of letting him down and being a failure.

That Monday at school was an eternity.  I counted down the minutes until after school when I had planned to tell him my decision in his classroom before he left for practice.  I had practiced over and over again what I would say to him “Mr. Grossing, I want you to know, I am quitting track.  I can’t take it any more.”   I would march up to him gathering as much dignity as possible and say my piece quickly, like taking off a band-aid with one swift effort to endure the pain as quickly as and as little as possible.

Finally the bell sounded signaling the end of the day.  I walked mournfully into his classroom never feeling so nervous and scared in my life, shaking with nerves and fear.  There was a line of other students, girls who were asking him about classroom stuff.  “Great” I thought, “Not only do I have to embarrass myself doing this as it is, but now all the girls will see how pathetic I am at the same time.”

The last girl walked away from Mr. Grossing’s desk revealing him sitting there looking over some papers.  I stood there sweating, shaking and waiting.  Finally he turned and looked at me and I began my speech.  In what was likely a shrill weak sounding voice I said quivering, “Mr. Grossing I wanted to tell you that I am quitting track.  I can’t take it anymore.”  I thought, “There I did it” and then I waited for what would surely be awful, humiliating and embarrassing.

But Mr. Grossing didn’t yell or scream or embarrass me.  Rather he looked at me with a gentleness, kindness and sense of understanding that I had never seen from him or any other male figure in my life including up until that point, not even from my own dad.  I can’t remember anything he said, but he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder and all I remember was the feeling of his respect, support and understanding.  I remember him conveying how much he respected me telling him in person and that perhaps I would try again next season.

Instead of being ostracized the rest of my seventh grade school year and being looked down upon by Mr. Grossing, I felt more included and more respected by him.  As a matter of fact at times it felt like the complete opposite.  He called on me more in class, he included me more in the fun extra activities that only the cool people got to do.  After that day, I became it seems, one of his favorites. After that day I became a better student and I absolutely loved school.

While I didn’t feel right about quitting track, the life lessons of facing my fears, being honest and having integrity were things I learned that were infinitely more important than seventh grade track.  I think the moment of honesty between me an my coach in seventh grade is something I carry with me even today as I coach my own team.  I always try to emulate Mr. Grossing’s “way” of dealing with kids who are struggling and kids who even choose to quit when they talk with me.

I think about the way Mr. Grossing dealt with athletes back then and while he was tough and sometimes intimidating he never was disrespectful or insulting of us kids.  I think sometimes that is what gets lost in the discussions these days about whether coaches yell and curse during practices at young athletes, the culture of respect and the appropriate expectation of improvement.  Mr. Grossing yelled and he had authority, but there was never any humiliation for its own sake and there was a prevailing atmosphere of care and even love.

Lou Holtz use to tell a story about the time when he was an assistant coach for Ohio State.  It was half time of a Michigan/Ohio State game and the Buckeyes had been taking a beating.  In the tunnel on the way to the locker room, Coach Hayes took the young assistant coach aside and berating him with impressive and shrill combinations of swear words and appalling observations screamed at Holtz, then a young Ohio St. assistant coach.  Absorbing the verbal assault the young Lou Holtz trudged to the locker room to address his players and make adjustments.  Years later, Coach Holtz looks back with fondness of his time with Woody Hayes and speaks about that halftime incident and describes it humorously saying “Coach Hayes was not mad at me.  He was just trying to get my attention.”

That is what good coaches can do, but only if they are able to do those types of things with love and respect.  After all, Jesus himself was no stranger to fits of anger as he tried to “get the attention” of the moneychangers in the temple area. I mean, “a whip made of cords?” Yes he was mad and certainly able to make his point.

I look back at my time as a coach and yes, there were times I yelled and even said some inappropriate things, but I was always sorry if I felt I crossed the line.  That’s what coaching girls does for you.  The line is pretty clear and there is nothing worse than knowingly hurting those young female athletes.  The girls on my teams have often done impressions of me describing me when I am mad and they are very funny.  The gum chewing, the running the hand through the hair and the hilarious examples and sarcastic descriptions I use during my rants.  But the one impression of me that I kind of like is the one where my yelling turns immediately into apology even before my ranting is even complete.   I like the fact that I seemingly have enough compassion and perspective to know when it is too much and also the need to put into context my frustration when all I want is for the girls to get better and be proud of what they are doing.

Iowa Men’s Track and Cross Country Coach Larry Wieczorek after his men’s track team had won the Big Ten Title said to a newspaper reporter,  “It’s far better to be the coach of a successful athlete or a team than, than to be an athlete,” as his team drenched him in ice water and hoisted him on their shoulders. “For sure, it’s a dream come true for me. … This is the crowning glory for me, personally, right here today.”  This is the goal of good coaches and the thing they cherish most.

I thank Mr. Grossing for all that he has done for me knowingly or not.  The things he taught me about running, coaching, life and being a man are things that have formed me to who I am today.  That’s what good coaches do for people.  That’s what I pray I can do for people.  It is also what running can do for you.  It’s not just the running in itself, but all of the connected culture and people of and about running that is so valuable.  I am convinced that running is one of the greatest teachers and greatest classrooms any person can choose to embrace.

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