My JV Coach gave me my first shot at being published, a leap of faith for which I will always be grateful.

I can’t tell you what game it was, the date or even the month. I know it was late, cold and dark somewhere in outstate Nebraska. I have never been a “sleeper” during car rides and this one was no exception. I had been on many, many rides like this one in the two plus years since I started high school. There was no radio and very little talking. Most of my teammates visited very quietly or slept. Like I said, it was late.

Our coach, Kyle Hoehner, sat just a couple of rows up and to my left. He was a young guy, well-liked and always ready with a smile and willing to help. He had been an outstanding athlete in his time in high school and was now our Junior Varsity and Assistant Coach. He was positive, as coaches go. I don’t recall him ever chewing someone out. He wasn’t a screamer. He opted for encouragement and taking a teaching approach. He was also a Journalism teacher, advisor on our yearbook’s production and oversaw our school paper, The Echo.

As so often happened on those long, dark rides my mind wandered everywhere from seeing my girlfriend when I got back to town to what I had to do on the farm the next day, to homework. I was never very talkative and in fact was quite shy. While other kids might blurt out answers in class or engage in rowdy talk amongst their friends I always remained more reserved. It wasn’t in my nature to be aggressive in any way or persuasive toward my opinion even if I had one which I suppose it appeared I didn’t since it always went unvoiced. About the only time I ever lost my self-consciousness was on the athletic field or floor. There I was vocal, engaged and animated. I didn’t have any of the hang-ups about being noticed that plagued me in a more social setting. Perhaps it was the proximity to that sort of mindset that moved me to say something to Coach Hoehner about an idea I had been mulling over for a while.

“Coach, I’ve got an idea”

“Yeah, Gif, what’s that?” he replied.

I’m sure he expected some sort of thought on strategy or the game we had just completed. As a player that enjoyed the “x’s” and “o’s” as much as playing we often talked game plan.

“I’ve got an idea for a column for The Echo.”

Coach Hoehner’s eyebrows raised, “Really? Let’s hear it.”

He was genuinely interested. Never mind the fact that I wasn’t even in Journalism, had only recently written sparingly for the paper and had never been in his class; coach wanted to hear what I had to say.

“Well, I think that a column in the paper about a kid who is just an average guy in school, doesn’t really excel in anything, isn’t particularly outstanding in any way and just sort of gets by would be fun to write.”

“What would he do, Gif? You said it would be fun to write, what would make it interesting?”

“That’s the thing, he wouldn’t really do much, just hang out with his friends, go to class, kill time, probably do a little stuff that wasn’t really within the rules. He would probably be an underachiever, not necessarily a bad kid but just kind of overlooked and invisible.”

“Huh, where did you get this idea? You been watching my Journalism students?”

I laughed, “No, not really, I just noticed that there’s lots of kids that don’t really have something they identify with or any sort of recognized group and I think it would be fun to sort of show what those kids do since they’re not a jock or a theater person or brainy or anything.”

Coach seemed to mull this over a little bit. He was probably wondering where in the world his undersized Junior post player had come up with such an idea. He was certainly wondering how a guy who hadn’t ever taken a class in Journalism thought he could step in and write a column in his newspaper. Furthermore, he had zero reason to take a chance on an idea that might end up appearing to mock an entire group of kids at school. So, of course he said, “Sure, put together a column and give it to me and I’ll see if it looks like it might work.” I was stunned to say the least.

As I said, I was not an outspoken kid. I wasn’t in the habit of taking any chances or risks and certainly wasn’t comfortable with the possibility of rejection. Safety in all things of that manner was my credo but here in this one instance I had stepped out of my comfort zone. Looking back I was lucky my first foray into floating my creative ideas out there went well. My coach could very well have passed my idea off for all the previously mentioned reasons. He had no reason to add to an already busy teaching, coaching and sponsorship schedule that I’m sure overwhelmed a young guy just starting in his career. Still, like me, he took a chance.

Sometime during the next week I presented him with my first column which was a tongue in cheek explanation of who this average kid was. I showed a few of the things he did (or really didn’t do) and I gave him a name, Joe Average. Coach and the editor for the paper looked it over and liked what they saw. They put me together with Blake Howitt, a guy I knew only from football and basketball. (Little did I know he was artistic) He sketched three guys with the caption, “Who is Joe Average?” Over the remainder of that year through the next school year I wrote about Joe’s exploits inside and outside the walls of the school.

As a writer I experienced the elation of stories that wrote themselves and the struggle with those that I seemingly had to tug and wrench out of my melon onto the page. When I wrote my last column which chronicled Joe’s graduation after 5 long years of high school and culminated with him giving the commencement address (which I was going to do also, but that’s another story) I had created a character who acted as an embodiment of some of the things that might just be wrong with our school. I had taken Joe through some troubles and some average-sized triumphs and had received praise from other teachers, who like my coach, had no idea that I had such a thing in me, all because a young teacher took a chance.

Who knows if I would have pursued the course of study in college I did had Coach Hoehner shot me down? Maybe I might have persevered and kept thinking creatively. Maybe I might have listened to the practical logic that us Midwesterners love to purvey and decided to make my life on the farm (yet another story, not a good one unfortunately). The fact is that our JV Coach, with no clear reason, gave me a shot. I would like to think I made the most of that. I know that I will forever be grateful. Thanks, Coach.

Anyone ever give you a chance that you hadn’t earned? Anyone ever shot you down but you persevered and kept going? I’d love to hear your stories if you’re willing to leave a comment.


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