Coach and Me: Going Home


Coach and Me is a series of stories that reflect on the relationships between coaches and their children and the lessons learned through sports. It will also be a reflection of memories for Tony Chapman and his dad, who passed away July 6, 2021. 

GOING HOME – It was birthday week last week. The second one without Coach.

And, last year, he found the stories that let a bunch of words come out. It was super fun to share them. As you can see, it’s been slower for a while. And, sure we are still looking, but sometimes the story isn’t about a coach and their kid. 

Maybe that was the lesson he wanted to teach me as I turned a little older last week. With dad along for the ride, I realized that sometimes the story is about remembering who you are and where you came from — in Mullen, in Hampton and even as things got rough in Lincoln on the weekend —  realizing that you can learn lessons anywhere. 

They kept coming all week long for me. And, I kept thinking about Coach. 

PERFECT VIEW: From Ben’s Porch above the 9th hole at the famed Sand Hills Golf Club, one can see why it’s easy to love being here. (nebpreps courtesy photo / Jason Liebert)

My alarm went off at 4:21 AM last Tuesday morning, September 6th. The destination, the world-famous Sand Hills Golf Club for 36 holes, to see some old friends – and meet some new ones. 

It’s just over three hours from my doorstep to Sand Hills Road. Thankfully, I gained an hour traveling west. I dumb lucked into this little trip, but maybe Coach had something to do with that. 

Dad took me on a different route this time. Through little 8-man towns – Merna, Arnold, Stapleton and Tryon. Little places we loved. Before 8:00 AM we were on the first tee swinging away. 

California. Nebraska. Minnesota. And, Michigan. 

That’s where our group was from. And, in a world that is sometimes too much, there is solace in Mullen, NE. Home of ranchers, tough-minded football and some of the best people on Earth. 

And, sure, most everyone comes to Mullen for the world-class golf and the best hamburger ever between rounds. It’s the same for me, but it’s everything else, too. 

It’s to be greeted at the door by Mullen cross country coach Janie Kuncl. And to see Jeri and Wade Edis when I walk in the clubhouse. And to take the mile trek up to Ben’s Porch to see former Mullen football coach Mike Brown – the mustache is still there – so I can ask him how the boys are doing. 

It’s to see course superintendent Kyle Hegland and tell him how great his course is after surviving a brutal summer. But, to also see how junior high volleyball is going and to make sure he’ll still be keeping the scorebook for Mullen basketball so we can catch up again this winter.

The afternoon was even more fun as we joined up with two guys from Ohio. One my favorite photographer, the other one of my favorite golf writers. Not sure why I get so lucky. (It’s kind of embarrassing it took me awhile to make the connection, but I hope we can do it again sometime Jason and Michael.)

Last year, Michael lost his brother. I wish we could have chatted about our loss more, but I was too busy wanting to go home as a few bad swing piled up in the afternoon. (Inside joke) But, the companions — the people in Mullen — always have a way of bringing you around.

“I like making the swings. I like watching that ball fly. I don’t care where I play, I can shoot 90 anywhere.” Amen.

Coach always felt that if you surround yourself with the right people it would make life that much easier. I have learned that since he left, reconnecting with old coaches and players that were impactful to him. 

But, I learned it again last Tuesday in Mullen. In seeing old friends and meeting new ones.

On my birthday, I figured there might not be a better place to be than Hampton. It’s where I learned life. It’s where Coach taught so much more than social studies and history; football and basketball. 

And, so that’s where the car took me after watching another cross country personal best in Aurora. (There was another one yesterday, where Coach took us golfing growing up.) I think he is watching all of those, too. 

I haven’t walked the sidelines there much since 1993 and I thought it’d be a little difficult. But there was a peacefulness in being back, a calm in the north wind and perfect sunset. 

The Hawks are playing better football, just not quite to the level of 8th-ranked Sterling yet. And, that’s okay. They are growing. The matchup with the Jets – a 32-12 Jets winner – was a full circle event. 

PERFECT HELMETS: Coach (and grandpa) would have been big fans of the helmets on display last Friday in Hampton. (nebpreps photo / Eric Allgood)

The Chapman’s got their start in coaching there; grandpa came to Sterling in 1953 after attending Doane College. Dad went to kindergarten before the family moved to Geneva. In grandpa’s first fall, the Maroons (no Jets until the 1960s) were 6-1-2 before going 8-1 in 1954 and being ranked fifth at the end of the season by the Omaha World-Herald. 

Sterling was also the first team that made me cry; Eric Haynes’ baseline jumper beating my Hawks in the 1987 Class D-1 state basketball championship game. 

But, on Friday, as if it was the perfect birthday present, I saw two towns that loved their boys. Two towns that are doing their best to survive in a modern world where it’s easier to move to a big city. But, Hampton and Sterling never do anything that’s easy. 

They know that you have to pull on the same rope to be successful. And, supporting a football team on Friday night is part of the deal. Because it makes those kids better people – better workers, better sons, better fathers down the line. Win or lose.

Hampton assistant Carson Klute was a little worried I’d leave the game early on Friday, we had another in the hopper just in case. He didn’t know if the Hawks could compete. It hasn’t been the easiest year in Hampton. 

But, as the time was winding down, I was still there and he gave me a smile. 

“Thanks for coming,” he said. “It’s good to see competitive football in Hampton on Friday night. Our town needs that.”

Dad would have loved it, too. 

Saturday night was a long one in the Memorial Stadium press box, where I sat at a laptop as the play-by-play typist. I don’t see much football, my eyes locked on my screen. 

156 plays. 67 first downs. Georgia Southern 45, Nebraska 42. 

I got home around 1:00 AM, Sunday morning. Ten hours later, the end had come for Scott Frost – a hero I wrote about when he was hired – and who I linked back to one of my favorite towns when it was inevitable that he would come home near the end of the 2017 season.

And, five years later, I still believe this. 

“They could learn a lesson or two in Lincoln about understanding who you are and recognizing what made you better than most. Not all, but most. They could learn by hopping in a car and driving five hours to Mullen.

A hard-working town that says ‘Welcome’ and ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you for coming.’ Even after they lost a big game. A town and a school that knows who they are and come together when the going is tough.

All of it – especially coaching –  is hard. On Sunday, I took to Facebook. 

My dad was a fired football coach. / My grandpa was a fired state championship basketball coach. / It all stinks. / It seems — looking back — that our last head coach never felt comfortable here. / That kind of makes me sad. I still hope we are the best fans.

I wish I knew why it didn’t work in Lincoln for Scott Frost, but I am sure losing his father didn’t help. And, while coaching is hard, I know losing someone you love is even more difficult. Somewhere along the line, Coach Frost lost his way and couldn’t get it back.

I wish I could figure out why the internet is so hard on coaches and players. I guess winning is a big deal. But, one thing I learned in all those lessons from Coach is that winning better not be the only thing.

I learned that you should work hard and let the results take care of themselves, but that your work should make the results meaningful to you. They do matter – we keep score in life. But, through sports we should develop lifelong bonds that make us better people, make our kids better citizens and to help us be better for each other. 

I learned that last week. In Mullen. In Hampton. And, even in a disappointed Memorial Stadium. The lessons from Coach, they keep coming. 

Surround yourself with people who support you. Believe in who you are and where you come from. You can learn that anywhere if you just have to pay attention. More timely lessons – Coach and Me. 

SAND HILLS SOLACE: The peacefulness of the Sand Hills captured behind the 8th hole at Sand Hills Golf Club. (nebpreps courtesy photo / Jason Liebert)

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