One of my favorite western songs, (you’ll note I didn’t mention both kinds of music, country and western) is the Night Rider’s Lament by Chris LeDoux, though Suzy Bogguss has a version just as good. The lyric that always catches my attention is the chorus, “He asked me why do you ride for your money? Why do you rope for short pay? You ain’t getting’ nowhere, and you’re losin’ your share. Boy, you must have gone crazy out there.”
It could be the encapsulation of many people’s lives, mine included.
Why do we choose the path we finally take?
I started as civil engineering major for my first two years at Wyoming. Then late one morning my friend Scott Hartwig asked me to go to his History of the Civil War class taught by Dr. E.B. Long.
That afternoon, I switched my major to American History. Some would call that a seminal moment in my life, and in retrospect it was. Without it I would never have ended up teaching history, coaching the Lusk Tigers, and met my wife of almost 41 years. You never know the path until you’ve walked it.
When you major in history there aren’t many options aside from teaching. I dabbled in anthropology for a while after taking a class from Dr. George Gill and considered law, but I hated the Tort and Business Law classes I took in my final semester, so it was back to UW for another year and a life as a teacher and coach.
“Why did I ride for my money?” In this case, the ride was working with teenagers. Kids from those challenging, yet invigorating 13 and 14-year-olds in junior high, to the cocky high school kids who suddenly aren’t so sure of themselves when April arrives during their senior year.
“Why do you rope for short pay?” That’s a question I asked myself often during my career. When I could earn almost as much in the two-and-a-half months between the end of the track and the start of football season running a construction company as I did in teaching the other nine-and-a-half it was a valid question.
I didn’t make a good income until my final seven years when I became an IT Director, paid on the same scale as the administrators.
“You ain’t getting nowhere and you’re losing your share.” Well, I don’t see it that way. The connections I made with kids, fellow teachers, and opposing coaches were worth all the minuscule paychecks, the long bus rides, and the frustrating nights playing on someone else’s field or gym.
My share came when I walked into a gym with my boys and it was just us against the best the foreign town could throw at us. Those final moments in a close game when the kids were riveted on every word, and I put my trust in their ability to win or lose a contest on their own.
Coaches, good coaches, know that the best you can hope to do is put your best player in a position to win the game. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, and I loved them either way for making the effort and having the moxie to try it in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. They’re better men today for those trials as teenagers.
“Boy you must have gone crazy out there.” That’s for sure a few times. I had my fair share of technicals and was ejected from a couple of football games, but they were all earned while defending my boys.
I respect officials who know the difference between a coach pushing it to the limit for his team, and some loudmouth in the stands sharing their ignorance with everyone around them. The good ones let a little slide as a coach pushes the envelope, but they have their limits as I did.
The second half of Night Rider’s Lament is the gravy on a career working with children, or in my case young men and women who would soon be working, defending our nation, or moving on to a college career.
“But he’s never seen the Northern Lights.” That’s that magic moment when your work pans out. It isn’t always the winning basket, the lean at the tape, or a goal line stand. Those magic moments come when former players bring their children by the house while they’re back home on vacation so they can meet the old coach. They come when that challenging kid makes something of his life and contributes to society. It takes a while sometimes to see the fruit of your labor, but it’s there.
“Never seen a hawk on the wing.” To me, that’s the last bastion of masculinity still allowed in America, played out on the gridiron the court, or the track. In the course of a 32-year career, I’ve shared some incredible moments with my team and shared heartbreak just as intensely. It’s all part of the game. In the end, learning to accept defeat graciously, and to be magnanimous in victory are perhaps the greatest lessons athletics can teach a young man or woman.
One of my favorite phrases to tell the boys or girls before a game, or a culminating track meet was this, “Never forget where you’re from, and make sure they remember it.”
“He’s never seen spring hit the Great Divide.” As the autumn of my life approaches winter, the idea of the eternal hope of spring remains strong. Kids are idealistic, they should be, they’re cocky, they should be that too. The world hasn’t beaten them down yet and they still think they can make a difference. They will make a difference if guided to the path intended for them.
“And never heard ol’ Camp Cookie sing,” That’s the joy of it all. There is hope, love, and humor in all we do if we take the time to find it. Those moments on long bus trips, the feeling when one of the kids cracks the perfect joke when everyone is tense under the impending pressure of a game are the essence of life.
“Why do you ride for your money? Why do you rope for short pay?” I can’t answer that, but I’d do it all again if I could.