Last Thursday in Athens, GA, my Coach (former college coach) went into cardiac arrest twice. He fell into the arms of Steve, the head coach at state, and my husband, the head xc Coach at Mississippi State, during warm-ups at the GA track. Moments later my husband called me in a state of panic. I grabbed my keys, picked up Maddy, and drove through the night with Coach Al’s wife and daughter....we arrived around 4:00am. I spent the next few days watching the SEC Track and Field meet and visiting with him. He is alive and doing much better and he is scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery Thursday. This will not be his first rodeo so please keep him in your prayers.
When I came to the realization that I had almost lost the one and only man that I call COACH (I don’t even call Houston “Coach”, and he respects that) I realize just how much I take my relationship and the memories I have with him for granted. Before Al I was a lost and lonely high school athlete that had obsessively ran twice a day everyday for almost 2 years trying to find a way to “run” away from home. I succeeded only because Al took a chance on me. Though I was never as successful in college as I wanted to be, I definitely had a very successful college career only because he believed that I was capable of everything, and like myself, he was never satisfied.
This man has been a mentor for me since day one. I was compulsive, irresponsible, mean, and self-centered. I may be all those things still, but he took me in and helped me establish some sort of direction in life, and in a way, he became a father-figure being that I was over 3000 miles away from home at the time.
Though our relationship was rocky at times, it was the best relationship I had with anyone going through college. Coach now calls himself “Grandpa Al” as he happily pushers Maddy around the track in her stroller any chance he gets.
I know this is selfish, but I CAN’T lose Coach. Too often STILL do I come to him for support. I have cried so many times in his office then I can remember. And thought I have yelled, screamed, and cursed at him- he never holds in against me. Because in the end he knew we both were just trying to be successful.
My best memory in College- and boy do I have many- Is probably of my senior year at state. This was one of my worst years ever. Though I was plagued with injuries all through college, I had over-trained (not a new thing here) throughout the summer, fall, and spring only to enter the outdoor season tired and hurt again. My back and hamstring never responded to treatment the entire year. The morning before the SEC meet I couldn’t even run 10 minutes on my hamstring. We had spent weeks trying to get me just to the point that I could race- just finish! I could not warm up the morning of my race and highly doubted that my pulled hamstring would allow me to finish. I spent 4 hours listening to “clocks” by cold play and praying to God, “Just give me ONE MORE RACE”. And I truly believe to this day there was someone out there on the track with me, because I would later learn just how out of shape I really was. I wanted nothing more than to score just one more point for the team, JUST ONE! JUST GIVE ME ONE MORE POINT. And as I stepped on the track that night, I truly committed to running this race or dying right there. If finishing meant death, then surely that would be the end of me. And thus I ran the best race of my life, not the fastest and not my highest finish, but by golly it was with every ounce of my being. – I finished 7th, at one point moving from 8th to 4th, and eventually back to 7th as my fitness finally caught up with me. So yes, I got my last two points ever. Not my best, but given the situation, I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.
Coach walked up to me after the race and said, “J.C. girl you are one of the best big racers we have ever had. I don’t know where you got it today, but thank you. It’s been a damn pleasure.” And with that, I realized it was truly the end of the most amazing five years of my life. (at that point in time).
Today, I take all the lessons he taught me and I pass those on to the kids I coach, I find myself repeating some of the same things he said to me. I tell them, “YOU will give up on yourself well before I give up on you, I will never EVER give up on you.”
And therefore, Coach, I will never give up on you either. I know there is a hell of a fighter in you- because that same fighter is now in me. Good luck tomorrow.