Over the weekend I learned of the passing of my high school track coach.
He was 77 years old and in a nursing facility due to Alzheimer’s.
I call him my track coach but he was better known in Connecticut as a legendary football coach as well as “the” gym teacher at my hometown’s high school.
He started at the school in the early 1960’s.
Now, by the time I was in high school, in the 1990’s, he was like something you’d only seen in nostalgic “good old days” movies.
Big chested, big square teeth, brush cut, whistle around the neck, clipboard in hand, and a booming voice that wasn’t overly loud but came through clearly as a growl more often than not.
He was the epitome of the classic high school football coach that doubled as the gym teacher
No simple task for an older John Wayne type to be surrounded by a bunch of Gen-X’ers slipping into the grunge era — it must have been confusing to him — but, man, did he ever command respect.
And he got it too.
He wasn’t your friend, he was your coach — whether you were on one of his teams or not.
I remember running track when all of the other teams had started wearing long mesh basketball style shorts and leaving their over-sized singlets untucked.
We’d step off the bus with our short shorts and singlets tucked in like we were competing in the 1948 Olympic Games.
One classmate of mine, upon hearing of his death, mentioned that he’d wanted to get an earring in high school really badly, had his parents approval and everything, but refrained for fear that Coach would rip it out and was, now 25 years later, happy that he’d made the decision not to get one.
I doubt Coach would have ever actually said something like that out loud but I 100% believe that that’s the way he thought.
For real, he was straight out of the 1950’s…in 1991.
Thinking back, I can only think of one guy in our high school that made the mistake of getting an earring. I can think of around 30 that got one once they were out of high school and out of Coach’s view.
The man clearly had an impact.
So, back in February, a former student of his (way older than I) posted on Facebook that she was doing some sort of volunteer work with comfort/therapy dogs in South Carolina and she’d walked into a room and saw a familiar face — Coach McLellan.
She posted a picture of Coach, still looking like a big strong gym teacher, and mentioned that Coach was suffering from Alzheimer’s related dementia and that his wife thought it was wonderful to see him light up reliving the “old” days — all but ignoring the dog in the room.
With that, I contacted my fellow alum for some contact details and wrote Coach a letter…the old school way…on paper the very same day.
I’m glad I did.
Here it is…
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My name is ##### ###### and I went to AHS from the Fall of 1990 through the Spring of 1994.
I was mostly a rec-level athlete growing up so by the time I was in high school, and in your gym class, my athletic endeavors were pretty much coming to a close.
As such, my moderate athletic abilities were pretty much unknown to everyone — myself included.
In Grade 9, I had gym class during seventh period — at the very end of the school day. The group in our class was an unsual mixture with a handful of kids from all four grades — something that didn’t usually occur for gym or any class, really.
Not sure if it was a scheduling mix-up or what — it was a weird situation but for a ninth grader coming in, it was pretty intimidating — especially for someone that wasn’t considered extraordinarily athletic.
One of my first memories of that gym class was when you paired us up in twos for two-on-two basketball.
Basketball was never a strength for me and I think that was obvious to you. You paired me up with DS (name removed but he went on to became a professional athlete).
Imagine that — a freshman paired up with a senior who just so happened to be the star of the soccer and basketball teams…and pretty much the most elite athlete to ever attend the school. Crazy.
As a result, I thought it was pretty neat that he even knew my name. And I’ve got to admit that his abilities on the court actually kinda made me look good too.
I also remember that when the floor hockey session eventually came around in gym, I was somehow forced to do recreational dance with B.T. (the female gym teacher) instead.
In fact, during my four years in high school — I never once got to play floor hockey in the gym; the one activity I knew I’d excel at.
But my fondest memory came in the Spring of my freshman year.
My parents had always said things like “Make the most of the opportunities presented to you” but I’d never really been able to apply that to anything in my life at that point.
It was the day we had to run the mile down on the track for the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.
I’d always been “okay” at most of the tests — pull-ups were always very easy for me.
Running distance though, not so much.
So you had our whole class walk down to the track and set us off running.
Most of the girls walked.
The smokers walked slower.
I started off trying to stick with the “real” athletes like Larry, Ken, Jimmy and John (all jocks in the stereotypical sense) and was doing a pretty good job sticking with them.
Then I started to pull away from them.
And then I lapped them.
I remember thinking in my head as I began the fourth lap, “What on earth is happening?”
Seriously, it was like no one else was even trying…except they were.
The guy in the converse high-tops and argyle socks that couldn’t shoot a basket, was horrible at volleyball, and mediocre at soccer, should not have been leading the field.
By OVER a lap!
I remember crossing the finish line winded and you coming right over with the watch in your hand and a grin on your face and saying, “Brainy… you’re on my track team now.”
Perhaps it was my very first runner’s “high” but I really thought you were kidding.
That is, until we went back up to the school and you showed me where the track locker room (which I’d always thought was just for football) was.
Not even taking off my gym clothes, I went to the pay phone to call my dad — “I’d need to be picked up later. I’m joining the track team!
Now, it was kinda awkward to be the new guy on a team with so many upperclassmen.
And being the new guy who didn’t appear to have much athletic ability made it even more unnerving for me. And joining the team mid-season? Well, that was unheard of. And it certainly didn’t help that I was a little bit shy too…
But you took me into that locker room, introduced me to everyone and pretty much set my mind at ease.
Actually, I was scared shitless and felt really, really, out of place. I didn’t feel I’d truly earned the full backing of Coach McLellan, the legendary High School football coach.
But you did back me. 100%.
Even though you didn’t coach the distance runners directly, you made sure I was taken care of — and I can’t thank you enough for that.
That weekend, I went out with my dad and we bought some running shoes — really ugly Asics with horrible green and highlighter yellow trim that totally clashed with our uniforms.
Three school days later, I was on a bus to Stafford or Tolland or somesuch other outpost in Connecticut for a track meet and running the very first event of the meet and as the only runner from our school.
I finished “in the points” and, being my first real race, it was a personal best.
On the bus ride home, I sat with Joe Gillis — nicest guy around — and I remember thinking… I’d have been home watching tv with parents right now… but instead I’m a valued member of the track team and sitting with a popular senior on the bus talking about how we did in our events.
For a ninth grader, that’s a big deal.
So as the weeks passed, I got better and better, and started doing more of the distance events — all of them actually — and by the end of the season, the 5000-meter was “my” event and I was finishing first with consistency and qualified for the State Open.
Somehow, a couple of freshman, Jeff and I, had managed to reel in and surpass every other distance runner on the team. It was really neat to have guys who, weeks prior, wouldn’t even so much as look at me in the hallway at school, darting back and fourth across the football field cheering me on by name for both straightaways.
While I was pretty much a non-factor at States… as a team, we won the State Title in 1991. What an awesome bus right home that was from East Hartford…
Now, still not really feeling comfortable with my place on the team, I skipped the team banquet that year.
Man, you got in my face about that at my next gym class, called me into your office down in the locker room, gave me my JV letter, shook my hand, smiled, and told me not to skip another one in an almost silent tone that only an intimidating football coach could.
The following fall, instead of hanging out at home, I joined the cross country team.
And then I did track again. And then cross country. And then track again and so on wracking up six varsity letters and adding another State Championship in 1994 — when I was a factor.
Not to bad for the seemingly unathletic kid that played tuba in the band and rode the “loser cruiser” to school each and every day.
Oh, and for the record, I never skipped another team banquet.
Now, my parents were never really athletic. I’m not sure there’s an athletic bone in my Mom’s body. My dad was more of a musician who ending up working for one of the insurance companies. But what man doesn’t want to be good at sports?
My dad died back in 2010 but my fondest memories of him are how he’d show up at every single track meet — you know where we had crowds that could be counted on a single hand — to watch his son outrun everybody.
He was beaming with pride sitting on those bleachers next to the tower hearing all of the guys cheer me on as I boringly ran in a big circle twelve and a half times, then four times, and then, later, another eight times.
I can still picture the look on his face saying, “Yep, that’s my kid.”
I went two seasons without losing a single race at home. I think the only time I wasn’t the first across the line was at one of the invitationals we went to. Talk about a personal confidence booster.
And that’s 100% on you, Coach.
I sometimes wonder if teachers even know when they’re “making” one of those moments for their students.
Sure, I may have drawn attention to myself on my own that day in gym but you took it upon yourself to make it more — and gave me the confident backing to really apply myself.
Further, after you’d passed the coaching reins on to Kurt — he pushed the same type of confidence on entering me in invitational meets with times well beyond what I’d ever done.
4:18 mile? Me? I can’t do that.
I did it.
Confidence is a crazy thing.
My life would have been *so* much different had I not gotten involved with that track team. Err, had you not forced me to get involved with that track team.
No way would I have been “rounded” enough to somehow find myself in the National Honor Society. No way would I have ever considered myself athletic scholarship material. No way would I have even had a girlfriend in high school.
It’s amazing, just a few months ago the Class of ’94 had our 20th reunion.
At heart, I still kinda of define my high school self as the dorky tuba player in the band that didn’t talk much… But the reality is that most people remembered me as a really fast runner. That’s a pretty cool high school legacy for someone like me. Something I’m really proud of even if I still find it difficult to believe.
Thank you for noticing and forcing me to pursue something that I was naturally good at. Something that I didn’t even know I could do and something that, had you not “put” me on the track team that day, something that I never in a million years would have pursued on my own.
You gave me my first opportunity — my first big break — and I certainly rode it as far as I could. And I’ll tell you, I’ve taken advantage of every other opportunity that first once opened me up to.
Thanks so much Coach!