A high school coach gave me a little glimpse into what adulthood was really like

I spent a lot of time on buses in high school.  Being a three sport athlete in out- state Nebraska meant you traveled; a lot.  There’s a culture that exists on a team bus, almost a caste system.  People sit in certain places based on their seniority and usually by their friends.  I never much cared one way or the other.  On the way to the game or the meet I was too dialed in to talk.  I really didn’t want the distraction.  While some were just happy to be out of school early on a Friday I was focusing on who I had to block or guard or run against that day.  I was locked in my own thoughts.

On the way home if I wasn’t fighting cramps I couldn’t sleep; never have been able to on a bus or any vehicle for that matter.  Not that I wasn’t tired.  I was most likely dog-tired but the more subdued quiet time on the ride home left me to ponder how successful I’d been, how I could get better and what lay ahead for the next day.  As on the way there, the “seating chart” was understood.  Coaches sat up front, those of us that weren’t social or popular were next and then the more talkative, sometimes rowdy ones were in the back.  One of those long rides home in the dark taught me something invaluable I’ve tried hard to remember to this day.

Steve Curtis was an assistant coach for our varsity basketball team and the coach for the Junior Varsity where I got most of my playing time.  I always liked and respected Coach Curtis.  He had a quiet and unassuming way about him, almost shy, unless you happened to play him one-on-one.  It was my understanding that he was a standout high school point guard and a tenacious competitor.  I liked how he coached too.  He wasn’t afraid to yell at a player but it always had the tone of encouragement, never disparagement.  He also made things fun in practice coming up with different drills that honed our skills but weren’t drudgery.  Overall, Coach Curtis was just a very nice and friendly guy.  I never considered that he might be a little bit lonely.

Coach Curtis also taught Physical Education at the high school, a job I never got the impression he really loved.  As I said he was quiet and reserved but he seemed to enjoy the company of the other P.E. teachers as well as the coaches.  He seemed relaxed in the coach’s office adjacent to the locker room and he always played his favorite country music cassette which included a version of “Good Night Irene” that I can hear echoing through the shower.  To this day however, it’s the bus ride that I remember.

We were probably at least an hour into our return so I’d had plenty of time to ruminate and come up with my own grade sheet of how I’d played that night.  I’d asked and answered most of the questions but there were still some things that I couldn’t quite resolve, mostly “x’s & o’s” kind of things.  So, since I was sitting in my assigned seat up front and just happened to be right behind Coach Curtis I leaned around the seat and tapped him on the arm.

“Coach Curtis?”

“Yeah, talk to me.”

“When we’re in the 1-3-1 and they overload do I have the low or high post?”

“Well ultimately you’re going to go low but you can’t leave the high post alone until our middle guy slides over.  Our offside guy is going to have to talk to you so you can slide down when the low post comes so you can get on him.”

“Do I front him or play behind?”

“More than likely you’ll have to front him and make them lob over you but it depends on the player.”

“Okay, I was just wondering.  It seemed like no matter what I did tonight I got posted up on and never could get position.”

“Yeah, that’s tough.  You’re going to have to fight through that a lot of times and if not just try and deny that pass into the low post.”

“If I’m behind the post should I try and deny from the baseline or top?”

“Baseline.  We have some help if we make him receive the ball farther away from the bucket.  If he gets a baseline pass he’s just going to drop step and have a layup.”

“Okay, that’s what I thought, thanks.”

Coach looked at me as if to say ‘Is that it?’ and I leaned back into my seat behind him.  I think I heard him humming “Good Night Irene” a time or two as we lurched through the darkness back to the high school.  I was satisfied with the x’s and o’s answer he gave me but something else stuck in my head after I’d filed that information away.  It was the way my coach had said “Talk to me”.

I was a kid, stuck in my role on the roster and the team and relegated to my probably less-than-desirable spot on the bus.  I wasn’t terribly happy with my social position and not greatly satisfied with my prowess as a basketball player either.  Basketball was always my weakest sport but I needed a winter sport and I knew I had athletic ability to contribute even if it was spotty and situational.  Knowing all these things about myself I never once considered that maybe adults found themselves in the same circumstances.  I suppose at that point in my maturity and understanding I had some sort of unrealistic expectation that once you were out of school, married and in a career things just sailed along.  I don’t imagine I ever gave it a thought that my coach might feel some of the isolation that I did as a farm kid just trying to do his best in a sport that oftentimes escaped me.

I don’t know how to describe how my coach looked at me and said “Talk to me” but it impressed upon me that he really did just want someone to talk to.  I was a not-very-socially-adept Junior or I would have tried to make better conversation.  Today, with a lot of years and experience under my feet I know I would have acted on the cue my coach sent but back then once I had the information I sought the conversation was over.

I never saw Coach Curtis after I graduated.  Truth be told I had less contact with him my senior year as I rode the pines for the Varsity.  I heard some years later he’d left teaching and was training horses, something I absolutely could see him doing.  I don’t know that my intuition was right that night.  Maybe I was an overly-introspective 17 year-old and reading more into the exchange than exists.  However, today as an adult I can affirm without hesitation that the people we see or think we see are often not who they really are.  Sometimes the circumstances have to be just right for them to drop their guard and give us a glimpse.  Sometimes that’s a smoky bar or a quiet dinner or a late night heart-to-heart.  And sometimes maybe even a dark school bus ride across Nebraska.

These days I try to follow my gut and reach out when I think someone wants to talk or needs a friend.  I don’t know that I’m very good at it but I hope the effort outshines my awkwardness.  I guess all we can do is give it our best shot.

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