I heard the soul-crushing news from a friend. The world has lost one of the good ones, my friend said: Coach is gone.
Before I was even born, my family knew his family, as neighbours, as friends. Consequently, even though we were no longer neighbours, I knew about him and he knew about me long before I entered Huron Park Secondary School in Woodstock, Ontario. Long before I came under his watchful eye, and under his invaluable tutelage.
Bill (Coach) Gillespie. Athlete, phys-ed teacher, basketball coach and esteemed architect of our school's powerhouse track team. Early on he determined he was going to turn me into a sprinter. Because I had great wheels? Scary speed? Because I could run a hole in the wind?
"No," he liked to joke. "Because no one gets lost in a sprint."
And so he took a kid under his wing. A kid he genuinely feared might get lost if asked to travel farther than 220 meters -- a kid who was more distracted than dedicated, wavering hourly between wanting to rule the world, or become a California beach bum. Mentoring by example. Striving to turn his pupil into a better sprinter, better athlete and, more importantly, a better person.
Coach was a larger-than-life personality. He could be a boisterous influence. A quiet influence. But always an influence.
Coach definitely led by example. Honestly, he could be a bit of a madman: obsessive, dedicated, all admirable energy, enthusiasm and endless, unwavering optimism.
Coach. I remember walking home one night after a track practice, puffing a cigarette (a youthful vice) when he pulled up in his car behind me.
"Want a ride, A.J.?" he asked, knowing full well I had a smoke in my hand that I was desperately trying to hide. No thanks. But he insisted. And insisted. And... my house was only a block away, so I eased in to his car, lit smoke cupped inside my jacket pocket. Of course he gabbed, eyes twinkling, lips locked in a smirk as my pocket began to smoulder.
Eventually I bit the bullet and snuffed the smoke out with my bare hand, face expressionless, not affording him any satisfaction. But nonetheless caught... red-handed.
Then there was the January day when he insisted we shake up the mid-winter blues with a long run. Outside. In a blizzard.
"But!" I mumbled. "It's storming. We'll catch a cold, or flu..."
"All the germs are inside," he said. "We'll be just fine out there." So we went out and ran for miles. Slip sliding away. Afterward I had to admit the outing was very cold, and kinda cool.
Coach was a larger-than-life personality. He could be a boisterous influence. A quiet influence. But always an influence. My wife recently asked me to identify the most influential people in my life. I immediately named Coach, even though I graduated from high school so many misty years ago, and had barely seen him in recent years. Such was his long, lasting impact on my life.
Coach passed away last Friday, having fought the good fight against cancer, the scourge of our times.
You may not know Coach, but I hope you know someone like him -- a person who pours water on you when you are about to flame out, who picks you up by the scruff of your neck and puts you back on track, who shows you that there is indeed a big, wide world out there, and tells you that the world is yours for the taking.
I had a dream last night: Coach, in heaven, playing hoops with God and pushing Him to be an even better Creator: "Seriously, you rested on the seventh day? Come on..."
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