Coaches teach us tough lessons, and some pay the ultimate

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By Steve Doyle

The tragic intersection of the fates of Jason Stinson and Max Gilpin has occurred too many times on the roads traveled by coaches and players.

Stinson, a football coach Pleasure Ridge Park High School, was doing what he knew it would take to build strength and character, and Gilpin, a young player, only was trying to have his built.

Both of them pushed, and, sadly, one pushed too hard.

Like the jury that acquitted Stinson, you can decide which one you think that was.

This is nothing new. Every day young men and women exert themselves in pursuit of athletic excellence, and coaches – motivators as much as anything – push them beyond their known capabilities, into that lonely land of surrendering their bodies to punishment.

No matter the pain or the pressure, athletes don’t look back and keep moving.

Some don’t return to the other side of the trauma to the body.

Overcome by heat, exhaustion, dehydration and, for some, extra chemicals, they shut down and leave us behind to mourn them, to study what happened and to learn from their tragedy.

If you’ve ever competed in any sport, you know that moment when you let your body go to the fates, when your head was telling you to take a rest, but something inside you – or someone else next to you – was yelling for you to keep moving.

It doesn’t matter if you are running, swimming, cycling or simply walking on a hot day, there was a moment when you met your limits and made your choice.

Maybe you played football and recall the days when water was for what coaches then called “sissies,” when the heat of the day molded you as clay and when failure required repetition of the pain.

Sometimes a coach might stand on your stomach while you were gasping for air. He might slap your helmet to be sure he had your attention. He might tell you to get down in the mud and wrestle your teammates until one of you was too tired to continue, as Bear Bryant became famous for doing.

Pain is required to build endurance, and if you protested or you failed, you went home.

So it is with coaches: They test our limits to see who among us can be greater than we knew.

I remember when I was rudely awakened to the concept that if I wanted to play, I had to be in shape, which meant showing my mettle by training and conditioning.

When I showed up for the first day of basketball practice in eighth grade, Joe Paul Simpson was our new coach, and like his brothers Charles and Ernie, he knew coaching was more than pumping air into the balls and choosing five lanky guys to play.

First, he pumped air into us.

About the first week of school, I believe, he had us running. Forget the baskets and balls, we became a cross-country team, running laps around the school grounds and interminable circuits in the gym, including up and down the bleachers. We ran wind sprints not on the court but outside, so the sprints could be longer and, well, windier.

If we had been prone to cursing, we would have cursed him, but he got us into shape, and later in the school year, we won the county championship. We learned.

The next year I went to high school and wanted to play baseball, and I learned again about this running thing. Coach Mitchell Bailey said to be on the team we had to run a mile in six and a half minutes. That’s a pretty high standard, and I can remember my friend Rick Taylor and I going on a test run one Saturday just to prove to ourselves we could do it. We both made the team. We learned.

Arnold Thurman required our freshman PE class to run 2 miles around the track in the spring to get a grade in the class. He didn’t care if it took the whole period – for some it did – but we had to do it. We found a way. We learned.

I basically retired from running after college, deciding that I could get along just fine. I still played ball, but I let my conditioning take care of itself.

Until one day I realized my waist size was equal to a perfect ACT score, and I vowed to lower that. The only way I knew to accomplish that was – yes – running, many miles in the humidity of Florida.

I was no marathoner. My wife, the personal trainer, has run two, a few half-marathons and several triathlons. Training with her was hard enough on me, but I did manage to run a half-marathon.

Would I have done that without the coaches of my youth? Maybe, but I’m guessing I would not have known the benefits or what to expect.

Running certainly hasn’t gotten easier as we grew older, but shoes are better designed and we are much better informed about the nutritional and hydration requirements of the process. We’ve learned from tragedy what to do and not to do.

Everything we know now came from sacrifice, and sadly, Max Gilpin’s sacrifice will be a lesson for those who follow.

Athletes will pay more attention about how to take care of themselves, and the coaches will take greater care to be sure each player is ready for the challenge.

An athlete in training will die again someday, and yet another lesson will be learned.

It’s just part of the process.