It was the start of my freshman year of high school and I was sitting in gym class, doing some stretching, and the gym teacher asked me if I was interested in going out for the cross country team. I told him that I didn't ski, but that I was hoping to run track.
He laughed, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me to meet him in his office at 2:30. By 2:35 I was the newest member of the Carteret High School boys cross country team. I wound up getting the MVP award that year, and if memory serves, every year thereafter till I graduated. But that September meeting did more than spawn a career, a whole lot more than that. My gym teacher, who we affectionately called "Shades" (his last name was Shadell), was also the head coach of the boys cross country team, as well as the spring track team. In addition to being my coach he went on to become arguably the most important mentor in my life. At a time when my world at home was falling to pieces, high school sports offered me an escape. And Shades filled a void when it came to advice, support, encouragement, and even discipline.
High school sports was good to me. I made some great friends -- some who I still keep in contact with on a very regular basis -- and even got a healthy scholarship to a school I would have never been able to afford otherwise. And thanks to that, I met my wife. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I owe almost everything I have, everyone I love, and all that I am to my experiences in high school sports. I learned more about success and failure and hard work and determination on the track team than I ever did in any classroom. Hell, I can't tell you the name of one teacher I had, but I can tell you I hopped a plane to attend a two-hour retirement party for good ol' Shades when I learned he was hanging up the whistle for good. That's how important he was to me, and how much I cherish the experience I had. It was my way of acknowledging all he did that he didn't have to do. It was a lot more than just telling me what my workout was for the day.
It's now 13 years since I graduated high school and my best friend and former teammate now has Shades' job. And I know for a fact that a big part of the reason he does it is because he knows just how important a good coach can be in the life of a young boy or girl. A lot of people think coaches are just teachers looking to earn some extra money, but there's much more to it than that. It's people who were fortunate to have a wonderful mentor of their own as a coach and who want to offer that same goodness to another generation.
So imagine how it feels to learn that the cross country and winter track teams are being cut from the school budget. There's no denying that we grew up in an economically depressed town. It's actually so bad that the state slashed the sales tax in the town to try and spur growth. But this hurts. Other towns in New Jersey adopted pay-to-play programs for their sports programs, but in Carteret it wasn't even an option. One day my friend is the happy coach of a team that nearly tripled in size last spring and now he's looking at two of the three seasons being erased from the calendar. And let's be honest, you can't succeed in spring track without cross country and winter track. Especially if you're a distance runner. No amount of self-dedication as a teenager can make up for organized practice and competition.
What kills me about this is that had I have been growing up in that town now, trying to live the life I did and become the man I became, I wouldn't be able to. I would have never made the friends I have; never had the mentor and father-figure I needed when my parents were divorcing; never went to the tremendous college I attended; and never met my wife. And the powers at be are going to say that they don't have the few thousand dollars in the budget it costs to run the team. People think sports is just something kids do after school. I'm here to say it's a lot more than that. And not just for the professional athletes, but for even those of us who just need something to care about. After all, you never know where it can take you. Those few thousand dollars aren't just to give kids something to do, it's money invested in the future of your children.