Let’s face it: A high school kid who participates in extracurricular activities has a leg up on those who don’t. Take athletics, for example. The field of competitive endeavor is infinitely more fertile than the barren ground of street corners, arcades, computer games, and after-school smoking cliques. There is simply more fodder for memories in athletic competition. And many of those memories are rooted in the coaches who nurture us through some otherwise troublesome years.
I joined my high school gymnastics team the day after I jogged past their gym while working out with the wrestling squad. I had barely glanced through the door and noticed someone balanced in a handstand on the still rings, but that one glimpse was all it took. I wanted to look like the guy on those rings.
Our gymnastics team had been cobbled together by an incredibly capable coach who — within two years — guided an inexperienced bunch of adolescents to second place at the state meet. For gymnastics, that is an astounding feat. Not surprisingly, the coach was soon recruited to do similarly wondrous things for a university program, which left us in need of a leader. Whoever that person might be, he had some substantial shoes to fill.
The “New Guy”
Jesse Bryant was a diminutive man. Short-statured and trim, he could have easily disappeared in a crowd — if he’d chosen to do so. But, as a former college gymnast who retained the intensity of a disciplined athlete, he offered some important virtues to our fragmented troop. “Coach Bryant” stepped into his new role with aplomb, and he soon rose head and shoulders above most of the men I knew.
Coach was an exemplary mentor. A few days after he’d undergone surgery for a hernia, he was attempting to teach us the proper timing for a new maneuver. Standing beneath the rings, shouting instructions as each of us swung unsuccessfully through the move, he finally decided it was time to show us exactly how it was done. Springing gingerly to the rings, he pulled his body upward, piked, extended, arced through a momentary beat at the bottom of his swing, and smoothly shot to a handstand.
“See that beat at the bottom?” he asked from above our heads. “That’s what gives you the timing. Now help me down.”
As we lowered him to the floor, we all suddenly noticed his wife, who’d apparently been watching the “teaching moment” from the top of the stairs leading to the gym. Her crossed arms and stern look did not bode well for the remainder of Coach’s evening.
A Disciplinarian with a Purpose
Coach was a steadfast disciplinarian, but he never treated us unfairly. Before each major meet, we were expected to throw our routines as we would in competition, with the coach looking on as sole judge. In this way, he decided who was ready to compete…and who, perhaps, had been delinquent in their training. Even though there was a well-established hierarchy for each apparatus, we never knew when one of the star performers might get bumped because he was having a bad day. It was a process that kept us hungry.
One evening, as we held one of these intra-squad meets, our top ringman was nearing the end of an impeccable routine when Coach, who’d been taking notes on a clipboard, turned toward the next competitor to tell him to get ready. At that moment the man on the rings over-rotated his dismount by a fraction and sat down abruptly on the mat.
“Fu…!!” came the truncated expletive, heard clearly throughout the otherwise silent gym.
Coach wheeled, glared momentarily at the fallen gymnast, crossed the miscreant’s name off the list of competitors for the upcoming meet, and scribbled “Rats!” across the page. He then explained to the entire team that, while he could understand a gymnast muffing a move, he couldn’t abide such an inappropriate outburst.
“We’re gentlemen,” he concluded, “and we’ll present ourselves that way.”
A Future Built on Solid Underpinnings
On our way home from my last state meet — I had placed 14th in a group of 48 — Coach and I talked about my plans for the future. At six-feet-one, I was the tallest high school ringman in the state — too tall, really, to do well at the collegiate level. I think we both knew that, but Coach suggested that I consider going to a school where I could pursue both academics and gymnastics. I told him my academic career would have to take precedence over athletics, adding facetiously that I’d never heard of any professional gymnasts.
“Well,” said Mr. Bryant, smiling a little, “I’m just grateful that you gave me the best years of your life.”
Me, too, Coach…me, too.