It was an August afternoon, and a hot one at that. One of those days where there is a haze in the air and you can see the heat rising off the asphalt. It must have been about 15 years ago or more. The school year had just started, and I was at my usual post for the fall of the year, outside the high school gym. I was preparing for cross country practice. All of our runners were stretching on the concrete just outside the gym lobby. It was then that he suddenly appeared – The Quitter.
As I was giving instructions to my team of about 20 boys and girls, a young man who looked to be in his mid-to-late teens approached me. He was gangly and rather unkempt. He was attired in sagging jeans and a dark T-shirt. His skin showed the effects of having spent some time in the sun as he sported something resembling a tan on his arms and face.
He walked right up to me and said, “Are you the running coach?” I said, “Yes, I am Coach Wright, the cross country coach. Who are you?”
The young man said, “I am Steven. I just moved here from Florida, and I want to run for you. I am going to practice with you today.” As I processed this quick encounter I responded, “Wait a minute, slow down Steven. Have you enrolled at Trigg County, do you have a physical, what grade are you in and have you run before?”
Steven’s answers were, “Hadn’t enrolled yet, no physical, 11th grade and I was a great runner in Florida, one of the best. I will be your best.” I told the young man, “There is no way you can practice with us. You have to be enrolled as a student first, get a physical and get your parent permission form filled out. Not to mention the fact that you need to be dressed in proper running attire. You simply cannot practice with us.”
It was at this point that Steven asked me, “What would keep me from running on my own with your team today during practice? You can’t stop me from doing that, can you now?” I replied, “No, Steven what you do with the next 30 minutes of your life is your decision, but you are on your own, not a part of our team.”
Our team had already built up to running three miles in practice. That day’s practice was the hilly route of down Cardinal Drive to Streetland then up Hospital Street to Main Street. At that point, the runners had to retrace their route back down Hospital, Streetland and Cardinal Drive to the school. Sure enough, when we took off, the new guy Steven took off with us.
I drove through the course once and returned to the board of education to wait for the runners to finish. One by one they begin to filter in, and they all had the same complaint – “Coach, you have got to get rid of the new guy.”
“The new guy is not even officially here,” I explained. Runners continued to come in and say, “Coach get rid of the new guy.” I asked them, “What is the big problem?”
“Coach, he stopped at least five times during the run to smoke. It makes us look bad,” replied the runners. I assured the team that I would take care of it.
About 10 minutes after our last runner came in, the new guy, a.k.a. the great runner from Florida, came dragging in. I spoke to him in front of the gym and reminded him that he was not on our team and that it probably wouldn’t work out anyway. I pointed out that apparently he had a smoking problem and that didn’t mesh well with distance running.
New guy bristled up and said loudly, “Are you kicking me off this team?” I responded, “You are not even on this team.” His voice continued to rise as he walked toward the rock wall in front of the gym. He repeated “Are you kicking me off this team?”
Having reached the end of my patience and growing tired of his yelling, I started walking after him. It was then that he climbed on the rock wall, lit not one but two cigarettes and put them in his mouth. With a cigarette sticking out of each side of his mouth, walking on the wall toward the sunset, he loudly screamed “Coach, how about this? You can’t kick me off the team, I QUIT!”
The last I saw of “The Quitter” was a gangly silhouette in a cloud of smoke, headed toward the west. One can’t help but wonder, how did things turn out for this young man whose career as a Trigg County Wildcat ended before it started?
Enthusiasm Makes the Difference
Mike Wright is the head coach of boys basketball and cross country at Trigg County High School. Emails concerning Coach’s Corner can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.