Midwest Voices

Veterans build teams on a new field

Zoltan Krompecher
Zoltan Krompecher

Success has many fathers.

Recently, I witnessed sports played at the highest level. Full of suspense and emotion and more powerful than ESPN’s infatuation with LeBron, this game was devoid of embarrassing interviews and self-aggrandizement.

The players were children coached by military veterans.

Coaches can elevate dreams or litter young minds with tragic memories that may take years to rust away. Good coaches offer no guarantees other than the promise that if one tries hard, things happen.

Chris Irving probably didn’t realize his coaching potential when an improvised explosive device turned his vehicle into a mass of twisted steel and sinew. Yet he — and other soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with names like Collazzo, Radnell, Pelham, Law, Mims, Kelly, the Hewitt Brothers and others — plys skills learned in the service by implementing strategy on diamonds, fields and courts instead of decks, airfields and foxholes through coaching.

Whistles replace weapons, and military coaches keep a medic bag nearby to heal scraped knees but also understand that encouragement is the best salve for a bruised ego. Their teams are emblematic of any military platoon, replete with players of every religion, race and socioeconomic standing but united in giving their best.

Everybody plays, and though the scoreboard might say otherwise, everybody wins. They chalk up losses with wins.

Loss is part of life, too. At battle’s end, opponents shake hands.

These coaches blend differences by using camaraderie as a currency for success. At the beginning of every season, kids assemble like new recruits, nervous and anxious, trying to make sense of a game. Soon after, they form a team, and when the final whistle signals season’s end they are friends tackling life and sharing memories of having won and lost, like soldiers.

The lines etching these veterans’ faces seem to soften, and they smile more when mentoring. A wounded coach confided, “Being out here helps me heal.” Their payment is when a sweat-soaked child looks up with a crooked smile, the sun shining on her face, and says, “Thanks, Coach.”

Out here, bleachers are replete with rank, but the highest rank is “Coach,” and when Coach yells up that he needs help, you can bet more than a few senior officers and hardened sergeants scramble down to report for duty as line judges, water boys and score keepers.

I’d like to convince myself that I can slow time. But the truth is that there will be fewer opportunities to watch my daughters throw a ball or my son make an open-field tackle.

But when they look up to the stands, making eye contact with me while flashing a smile, everything is as it should be. So thanks, Coach, because years from now, I’ll have memories to treasure for a lifetime and the realization that my family title is more important than anything else.

When dreams fade and life deals them a setback, these children will discover that which is deep within them to carry them forward; somewhere a coach had a hand in it. Next season, new faces will fill the ranks, and coaches will be standing ready, like soldiers on watch.

These coaches are truly soldiers for life.