Behind the Lines – Standing outside the fire

The best sports video I’ve ever watched came at the end of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. A montage of the best American efforts in track and field was set over Garth Brook’s hit, “Standing Outside the Fire.” It made an impression on me at the time, something that was difficult to do in those final cynical days of my education career.

The video and the song have stayed with me for the intervening 18 years.

It came home again recently when I heard of the passing of one of my former athletes earlier this summer. If you coach long enough, you’ll eventually bury an entire football team if you yourself last long enough.

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Rich was the athletic director’s middle son, a tall skinny kid with a great kicking leg, and an even better personality. When I heard of his passing, another montage, this one from four decades ago rolled through my mind.

He was a great punter, and a good high post player and I’d love to have had him on my track team, but he was already a par golfer as a senior in high school. As is all too often the case with young men, he passed too soon.

Tony was a teammate with Rich, the same age, but a year behind him in school. Tony was a gifted athlete, with that innate ability to cut and run that football coaches look for in a running back, abilities you can’t coach, that are simply God-given.

Tony didn’t care much for academics, he was the classic small town, good-time guy. He was always in some minor trouble, and on the edge of eligibility, but that could run to daylight like no one else I ever coached.

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He died flying down the highway, drunk at 120 miles per hour west of Manville in his early 20s. Sadly, that’s often the premature ending for bandit style kids. Bandit, not in a bad way, but in the manner of those who just won’t cow-tow to the norm, those who march to their own beat, those living “Outside the Fire.”

As I look back on the four decades plus since my first football practice as an assistant coach back in August 1980, I’ve joined the ranks of those coaches who have sadly buried an entire team.

Boys by nature are risk takers, athletes, especially football players, and wrestlers often push that adventurous spirit to dangerous levels, and no, they don’t always beat the odds.

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The worst phone call of my teaching career came in the early summer of 1988. Jarvis, one of my basketball players called me at 1 a.m., totally distraught. His friend George, a gregarious, talented young man, about to enter his senior year had drowned in Boysen Reservoir in just a few feet of water. It was tragic beyond words.

I came home two days later from my summer construction job and my wife could tell I’d been very upset. “What’s wrong?” Sue asked.

“I went to see George at the Davis Funeral Home,” I said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

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His eulogy, delivered by my beautiful, talented, late friend Cathleen Galitz was the greatest I’ve ever heard. I can’t remember it word for word, but her commentary on George being “forever young” has stayed with me for a third of a century.

Motorcycles, truck wrecks, and construction accidents have taken a few of the boys, and a homicide one of them.

Mike was a defender, the stopper on our state basketball team. Some kids take pride in their jump shot, their cross-over move, or their ability to block shots, Mike loved defense. The hardnosed kid took it personally when someone scored on him. His hustle, pugnacious grin, and overall toughness were contagious.

I’ve never coached a more determined defender. Mike found his role on a team of talented shooters, ball handlers, and rebounders, and without him, we wouldn’t have won a state title.

Tragically Mike was killed by an enraged wife outside their home with a pickup truck. He deserved better in life, he too is gone physically, but remains vividly alive as an eternal 18-year-old kid in my mind.

Sometimes the connection comes earlier than high school.

Justin played middle linebacker on one of my 8th-grade football teams. At the time he was just 14 years old, and I was only a few years older at just 26. We hit it off as people often do, regardless of the dozen or so years that separated us.

On long road trips traveling over South Pass from games in Green River or Rock Springs and flying down the Big Horn Basin from Powell or Worland Justin would sit directly behind me in the front of the bus. We’d talk about life, his future, my future, football, and just about every topic in between.

I switched schools as he hit high school but followed his academic and athletic career until he joined the US Air Force after graduation.

It was a shock on Sunday morning when his beloved grandfather told me he had passed away after a car accident near his base in Alaska. He remains a friend forever, a young man who didn’t get his fair chance at life, but who made a difference nonetheless.

It’s hard to cope with these tragedies, it’s not war, just the random circumstances of life that many chalk up to fate.

Fate it may be, but the nature of young men to be invincible is part of it.

As Lt. Colonel Henry Blake said in MASH, “There are certain rules about a war. And rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”

Coaches can’t either. We can counsel, suggest, offer advice, and maybe even a warning, but in the end, it’s up to the young men to choose their own path. Dangerous or not, lucky, or not, it’s the way of life, and sadly, a way of a premature demise as well.

I think about all these young men often, and wonder what they would be doing today, what differences they would have gone on to make in the world and lament their absence. They lived within the flames, not outside the fire.

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