Coach and Me is a series of stories during the 2021-22 school year that reflect on the relationships between coaches and their children. It will also be a reflection of memories for Tony Chapman and his dad, who passed away July 6, 2021.
HOME OF THE TEACHERS COLLEGE — We all learn, eventually, that our years just after high school shape us just as much as any time in our life.
Who will be your lifelong friends, how to live in the real world. All the good stuff. Most of what we learned before that — through high school sports and activities — is applied in the “next step.”
For coach and mom, the town that shaped them as much as any, was Kearney. Both attended the Teachers College and both became really good ones.
Mom was a little more serious about getting done than dad, if the story is right. Pop flipped burgers at Tico’s, sold stuff at Klone’s Sporting Goods on the bricks, but didn’t study as hard as his bride. They got married at 20 — engaged at Grandpa’s Steakhouse when the interstate was just a baby — and found a little spot in a basement on Central Avenue and about 5th Street.
On Friday, we pass that way again ready for some more lessons from coach and whoever might provide us to them down here.
Our destination is Kearney Country Club for state cross country and the visor I wore was his. So were the shoes. The reason for us to be there was different than any other time I had attended or covered a state event. Sure, there would be stories to tell, but I got to be a dad since our daughter Olivia and her Grand Island Northwest teammates qualified for the event.
I thought about coach a lot.
Between being dad, Liv and I were determined to watch the dual that was Gabe Hinrichs of Elkhorn South and Carson Noecker of Hartington-Newcastle. There pursuit of all-class gold and once-in-a-generation times was something that I followed closely.
Some of her teammates — all the sudden — had labeled me a cross country geek. I didn’t mind.
Noecker had set the pace in the fourth race of the day at 15:19.51; about three seconds faster than his gold medal time last year, just the third sub-15:20 time at Kearney CC in state meet history.
Then Liv and her teammates ran. Racing is about so much more than results and medals. She knocked three minutes off her first Kearney race. Her team finished ninth. And, we loved every second of it; excited for what this sport can ultimately teach us.
When she was done and I put the media badge on because I had to see the end of Hinrichs’ race up close. Down the hill I went. I am with Stu Pospisil of the World-Herald and Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal-Star. Both could write me under the bus.
“He’s gonna get it,” I said.
“No, he’s going to have to really go,” Stu replied.
We watched. You couldn’t tell in real time. Hinrichs had done it — 15:18.13.
“I thought it was beatable,” Hinrichs said, barely out of breath. “I went out and ran the whole thing by myself. I didn’t know if I was going to do it in the middle part (of the race).”
Twenty minutes later, I needed the wisdom of a coach. A lesson dad may have used, but told by someone else.
What is a champion I wondered? Dad had coached one. My specific memory from tagging along with that team as an 8th grader was that they were willing to do almost anything for each other to win and to be great. Summer weights. Team camps. You know the drill.
On a hill above the medal presentation, I sought out an old friend. A college friend. Remember how that shapes us? Anyone who knew Tim Ebers for 90 seconds at Hastings College 25 years ago knew he’d be a coach some day.
He’s the cross country coach at Elkhorn South. Seeking out my lesson, he laid out a three minute Masters thesis that I wish all athletes could hear.
“Uncommon. Extraordinary. Rare,” he said when I asked him to describe Hinrichs in three words.
“A champion does the little things in everything,” he continued. “We had a conversation after his sophomore year when got 13th and he said, ‘I want to be the best.’
“We talked about what that means. It could be a state champion. But, it also could be many other things — not taking any shortcuts, doing everything right. Whether it’s training, taking care of your body, all those things. He’s been everything we talked about and more.”
What is it like to coach someone like that?
“It challenges you as a coach because they can do things that you have never seen,” Ebers said. “You want to push them hard, but not over the edge. We have done things with him more than we have ever done with any kid.
“It’s a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that.”
Then, he saved the best lesson for everyone. The question, just came out.
What did he teach you, I asked. He paused.
“He taught me you can always push yourself to the next level,” the coach said. “There is always something that you can improve and get better at. He just had a drive to be the best you can be.
“You can always be asking yourself, ‘What more can I give today?’ And that might just be being a great teammate. He’s been such a great leader for our culture and our team. We had a conversation after our second meet this year and one of his goals was that he leaves it better than it was before.”
Elkhorn South improved their team standing each year of Hinrichs career, finishing 12th when he was a freshman and fifth yesterday.
“Our kids are noticing that. He really helped set a standard for our program.”
Those lessons. Those words from a coach, whether here or not. And, they are not just for runners, but for everyone. The lessons we can lean on. Coach and Me.
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