Volume 47, Issue 1 - January 2012


The Coach

by Lyle R. Hill

It was an incredibly hot and humid mid-August afternoon oh so many years ago when I, along with about 40 other 15 and 16 year olds, was first introduced to Mr. Thaddeus J. Parker, the new head coach of my high school sophomore football team. He was a huge man … the biggest human being I have ever stood next to … a former lineman for the Eagles. His looks intimidated even the toughest of the guys and down right scared the rest of us as we stood before him.

Expectations were high for this group. As freshman, the team had gone undefeated in what was considered to be one of the most competitive conferences in the state at that time. And the games had not been particularly close. By the second half of many games, the second stringers were getting most of the playing time. As sophomores, this team was considered a “sure bet” to take the conference title for a second consecutive year and many thought that yet another undefeated season was in store as well.

“Okay, you batch of cream puffs,” he bellowed at our very first meeting and official practice, “It’s my job to turn you bunch of sissies into real men and believe me, it won’t take long for me to separate the men from the boys around here. The cream always rises to the top.”

While my 15-year-old mind was trying to sort all of this out … for instance, did the cream in the cream puffs have anything to do with the cream that was going to rise up at some point in the future … he raised his big right paw and pointed to the quarter mile oval that circled the football field. “Start running,” he barked. I dropped all thoughts about cream puffs and sprinted toward the track.

After two laps around the quarter mile oval, he stopped us, let us get some water and then had us line up in front of him. We had been running in full gear including helmets. Our last names were clearly printed on white bandage tape on the front of our helmets so the new coach could identify us. He stared at us for what seemed like an hour (although in reality it was probably not more than a few minutes) and then he pointed to a 16-year-old by the name of Vernon Williams. Williams was the biggest kid among us. Parker asked him, by name, to step forward.

Even to this day, I can remember the scene quite vividly. At the age of 16, Vernon Williams was a solid 6-foot 2 inches and 230 pounds. He could have passed for 25 years of age and it was rumored that he had been shaving since the fourth grade. But as big and old as he seemed, he looked small and childish standing there in front of coach T.J. Parker.

“Are you a cream puff, Williams?”

“No sir, I am not a cream puff,” Vernon replied.

“Then what are you?” the coach screamed back.

“I am a right tackle, sir, and I think I’m a pretty good one.”

“I think you’re a cream puff Williams, but I intend to change that.”

They stood there, glaring at each other until the coach motioned Williams to return to his place in the group. The coach then paced back and forth for a minute or two then suddenly stopped as if he was preparing to tell us the most important words we would ever hear. We were dead silent. While there was a slight amount of fear just below the surface of our emotions, there was also the feeling that this coach might be just what was needed to get this team to wherever its talents could take it. These thoughts were racing through my head when he started to speak.

“Boys, I want you to know one thing. I will not tolerate a player who is all sizzle and no steak. You gotta produce if you are going to play for me and you should never count your chickens before they hatch. And even more important, while I make no claim to be a farmer, you can be sure that the chickens always come home to roost. Now take two more laps around that track and then line up again.”

First cream puffs, then steaks and chickens. If I hadn’t been wearing a uniform and running around a quarter mile oval I might have thought I’d stumbled into a meeting of the home economics club. I started to think First cream puffs, then steaks and chickens. If I hadn’t been wearing a uniform and running around a quarter mile oval I might have thought I’d stumbled into a meeting of the home economics club. I started to think maybe the guy had a food problem or something. I headed back out to the oval and started running. After the two laps, we again got drinks of water and assembled before the coach.

“Are you tired? Are you hot?” he yelled.

Of course we were. It was 90-something degrees and not a cloud in the sky. We shook our weary heads in unison.

“Well remember this,” he went on yelling, “No one ever drowned in sweat. Furthermore, if you can’t stand the heat, then you gotta get out of the kitchen. Now take two more laps you bunch of pansies.”

I walked toward the oval track wondering to myself about how many times a week the home economics club met and whether or not they ever made cream puffs. I also started to think that at the rate we were going, a sweat drowning might actually be possible.

Day after endless day he worked us without mercy, screaming and cursing and constantly reminding us that history had yet to record a drowning due to sweat. If anyone dared to moan, we’d get the standard, ‘No pain, no gain,’ fired back at us. The man worked us like animals and while we were without question the best-conditioned team in the conference, we were also without a win after our first five games. One night, after a long and grueling practice that concluded with a now customary two mile run, our quarterback, Tom Rush, spoke up.

“Coach,” he began, “I am a little discouraged. We haven’t come close to winning a game yet and this Saturday we’re gonna face a team that’s undefeated. We’re disorganized on the field, our plays are third-rate and we don’t ever seem to have the right guys playing the right positions. We’ve been getting beaten badly and if we don’t get our act together we’re going to get killed this Saturday.”

“Boys,” the coach responded while munching on a Snickers bar, “I don’t know why Tom’s got such a burr under his saddle, but I want you to remember that from an aerodynamic point of view, the bumblebee cannot fly. Also, let me say this to all of you but especially to you Tom … if you’re pulling on the oars, you don’t have time to rock the boat. As for this Saturday’s game, we’re just gonna keep our powder dry and see how the cookie crumbles. Now get out there and do another mile for me boys.”

Keep your powder dry? Did he mean baking powder? For the cookies maybe? By this time I had applied for membership in the home economics club but had been rejected after being informed that the club was an all girls group. This was the ’60s, so equal opportunities and sex discrimination issues were yet to be dealt with and all of the lawyers in my part of the city were busy with criminal defense cases anyway. I did notice however, that I had an unusually large appetite after football practices and I wasn’t always sure it was due only to physical exertion.

Tom objected openly to the coach’s order and didn’t move. Several others didn’t move either. Tom was a natural leader both on and off the field and highly respected by everyone. The coach picked up on what was happening and turned to address the group but directed his comments to Tom.

“Tom, do you have a problem?’

“Well Coach,” Tom began, “I’m not against working hard and getting in shape, but we need more than that. We need a game plan and some offensive plays that have a chance of succeeding. A defensive scheme or two might help as well. We’re probably in better shape than any team we face but we always seem to run around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off.”

The coach didn’t answer right away. He seemed to be considering what Tom had said. Then after a couple of moments of silence, he spoke.

“Tom, I like that one … about the headless chickens ... I’ll have to remember it. However, I want you boys to remember that there is never a traffic jam on the extra mile. And while we’re on the subject, you need to always remember that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Now let’s hit it.”

The team went winless that season and more than a few of the games were embarrassing. Many years later I have come to realize that Coach Parker was like a lot of people you meet and especially so in the business world. You see, a lot of people know the buzz words and catchy phrases of the business world. Some of them have prestigious degrees, have read all the right books and can quote the business gurus of the day. They talk a good game and wrap themselves up in what seems to be worthwhile preparation and effort. Often they spend inordinate amounts of time on the unimportant things they can master and control, but when the game is on the line, when a solid plan is needed, a decision waiting … they can’t perform. The business world is full of people who know the words, and have the appearance of knowing what it takes to succeed but they are, as the old coach would most likely say … all show and no go.

I ran into Tom Rush the other day. He went through college on a football scholarship and even played for awhile in the CFL. We had a good laugh about those days with Coach Parker from so many years ago and I asked him if he had ever heard any more about him. He said he had although, unfortunately, it was not good. Apparently, the coach had been vacationing in Mexico a few years back and he was thrown over the side of a ridge while horseback riding through a mountain ravine. He actually survived the fall … officials claimed later that the horse had a burr under his saddle which caused the horse to bolt and throw the coach off … but he choked on a cream puff he was eating at the time and that’s what did him in. Funny thing though, he had apparently gotten lost and rode exactly one extra mile past the resort where he was staying. And because there was no traffic on that extra mile, no one saw him fall; no one was there to help.

I wonder if he was sweating at the time.


Lyle R. Hill is the managing director of Keytech North America, a company providing research and technical services for the glass and metal industry. He has more than 40 years experience in the glass and metal industry and can be reached at lhill@glass.com. You can read his blog on Wednesdays at lyleblog.usglassmag.com.

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