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Coach McLellanOver 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.

Glenn McLellanOld school.

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…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – |
Hi Coach!
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!

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Amy ToyenToday is September 11th.

In some ways, I’m kind of glad that the “hype” that’s surrounded the date for the last few years has finally subsided. I mean, is it really necessary to commemorate every single anniversary? I think that sort of thing had gone a little too far in the United States. Everyday on the calendar is an anniversary of something — but does it have to be mentioned every year? I don’t think so.

Now I know, there are people out there that claim 9/11 is different and that its so we “never forget”. Well, I’m not sure anyone in the western world over the age of 15 will ever forget anyway. I know I haven’t forgotten.

I actually knew someone in the World Trade Center that day.

These days it seems most people claim that they knew someone who died on September 11th, so as to feel connected to the event (which, quite honestly, why would anyone want to have a connection?), but I think a lot are just blowing a lot of hot air to get attention or something. That’s sad.

I went to high school with Amy Toyen. I can’t claim that we were close. In fact, I’d have to say that I knew her older sister even better than her, but she knew my name, I knew hers, and we occasionally sat next to each other on the bus to track meets.

She was the “manager” of the track team in high school — a position she took over when her older sister Heather graduated.

What exactly does a “manager” do for the boys track team you ask?

Well, if you tracked down all of the members of the boys track team from her years in high school, I’d bet every single member would remember vividly that she was the girl who brought blow pops for all of us to eat on the bus ride home.

It sounds silly, but that’s just the type of person she was. For some of us, the blow pop on the bus rides home was one of the perks of being on the track team. Actually, when compared to running up hills repeatedly until you couldn’t feel your legs, I’d say it was the only perk. And it was because of Amy.

In addition to being the ever-popular supplier of lollipops, at home track meets, she maintained the score book — that’s where all of the competitors times, distances, and heights are recorded. Scoring a track meet is rather confusing when you get right down to it — but she was second to none.

Sometimes it was like she had the school’s all-time record book at her fingertips too — always handy when striving to break a 20 year old mile time.

In high school, I was a distance runner. I often ran 4-5 events per meet, but when the competition was stiff, the coach had me run my two best events — the long ones.

The first event of a meet was the 5000 meter. The second to last event was the 3200 meter. Looking back, it was probably set up that way so that we distance runners had time to rest between the two longest events.

Basically, I’d have about 2 hours to kill between my two events. More often than not, I’d spend most of that time leaning over the counter into the “tower” shooting the breeze with Amy…

“Hey, what was my time last week?”

“Amy, do you have a pair of pliers? My spike wrench snapped…”

“What time to I have to hit to qualify for the State Open?”

“That kid over there from Tolland — can you see what he ran last year? I don’t recognize him…”

“Any chance I could get a blow pop now? Please? Pretty please?”

She always had the “right” answer to each and every inquiry.

When the news circulated that she’d been in the building, and it was confirmed when I saw her name go by on a ticker on television a few days later, I’m not sure that I was mad. Or even angry. My stomach was in a knot — I was shocked. And I was sad. Sad for her family and those who knew her, and yes, even those of us on the track team. She was one of the few ‘genuine’ people in our high school full of ‘entitled’ snobs.

They erected a statue of her at the local library where we grew up. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never actually gone to visit even though I’ve driven by numerous times over the years.

I’ve seen pictures though and, for me, it didn’t do her justice. I prefer to remember her for her huge smile, her freckles, her oversized glasses, and with an extended arm holding out a blow pop. And that’s probably why I’ve never stopped by to see the statue.

I’m going to go out and buy a bag of blow pops today.

(Re-post from September 11, 2007)

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Alphabetical OrderI seem to have a special knack for making connections with people, almost instantly, that have ended up pushing me up the social and financial ladder…

Maybe everyone gets that feeling, but for me, it seems to happen on a pretty regular basis and often times from the least expected sources…

The first one that I can recall was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Nancy Jones.

We’d just moved to town and I joined the class a few days into the new school year. It was awkward enough being the new kid, but being the new kid who missed the first 4 days of school made it that much more uncomfortable…

Very early on, probably by the second day, it was apparent that my Midwest “edumacation” wasn’t going to cut it in stiff and preppy New England.

I could read, yeah, and I could write just as well as the other kids. I was up to speed in the math department too, but there was one thing that totally baffled me.

Alphabetical order.

To this day, just thinking about it sends shivers down my spine. Really. I’m not kidding.

See, each morning when we’d come into the classroom, there would be a list of maybe 10 vocabulary words on the chalk board (remember those?). The first task of the school day was to print them out in your neatest handwriting in alphabetical order.

Say what?

For the first few weeks, I faked my way through it. Obviously, that didn’t work and the teacher, Mrs. Jones, called me back to her desk one afternoon and confronted me about it.

I flat out lied to her and said that I’d just messed up that morning and I’d put them in the correct order tomorrow.

Well, the next day, I threw a few sideways glances towards my next-desk neighbor Jacquie Ainslie’s desk, you know, to copy her order of the words.

“Brainy,” growled Mrs. Jones from the back of the room.

BUSTED!

I got up from my miniature desk and walked back to her BIG desk, scared out of my mind.

As I neared, she grabbed my arm, got in really close — we’re talking right in my face, looked me in the eye with and icy blue stare and through gritted teeth said, “You need to tell me when you don’t understand something. You understand me?”

I nodded as I bit the insides of my cheeks.

You’re better than this. I know you can do this,” ask she shook her grade-book around for added emphasis or something.

Then she proceeded to fill out a “white card”, which in our school was what all of the troublemakers got for, well, being troublemakers.

If you were really bad, you got a “blue card”. I’d have died if I ever got one of those… Either that, or my parents would have killed me.

Basically, they were the elementary school version of detentions and suspensions. Not really harsh, nothing more than a little printed index card, but still not something you wanted to take home and ask your parents to sign… I’m pretty sure the office called your parents about them too — you know, to make sure they were aware…

Anyway, she snatched my paper from my hands, smiled in a scary sort of way, patted me on the head, and told me to go sit back down.

Later that day, as our class headed towards the cafeteria for lunch, Mrs. Jones pulled me aside, discreetly this time, and told me to head to room P-7 after lunch instead of heading outside for recess.

Now I’m thinking she’s going to beat me up or something. Really, I was afraid. I wasn’t real keen on this new school to begin with and things weren’t going like they had in my old school. I’d had just about enough, really…

I headed to the classroom during lunch actually trying to avoid any sort of intersection with Mrs. Jones — she was still eating. I opened the door to P-7, and one of the other 2nd grade teachers was inside with a few other kids that I sorta knew but not really since they weren’t in my class (and I was new).

These other kids were, sorry if this comes across as obnoxious, but they were dumb. I don’t know how else to describe it. I mean, these weren’t only the troublemakers, they were the morons too.

Now, being that I couldn’t alphabetize anything to save my life, perhaps I was just as much a moron, but it really opened my eyes…

Mrs. Jones was right — I was better than this. I didn’t belong in this room.

(An ego was born…)

I missed two recesses total hanging out in that classroom after lunch. That’s all it took before I had a firm grip on what the concept of alphabetical order was all about.

Now I know that a lot of people will just say that Mrs. Jones was just a good teacher doing what good teachers do.

That may be true, but I wasn’t the only kid who struggled in that classroom…

I was, however, the only kid in her class that year that she wouldn’t let fall behind.

She picked me for some reason…

She even stayed on my ass until I moved on to junior high. She didn’t forget. It sucked, actually…

Amazingly she’s still teaching the second grade at that very same school. Hmmmmm, maybe she really is just a great teacher?

Sometimes I think about stopping in but, honestly, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to face her even now!

I mean, what if she told me again, “You’re better than this!”

[I’m never really very good at keeping up with “series” postings, but I’m gonna try harder on this topic. This is the first of at least 15 super awesome people — not related to me — who should probably get some credit for the successes and failures I’ve made and my way of going about, well, everything…]

Can You Dig It?

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