Starting our sophomore year in high school, my friends Stu, Amol and I volunteered as youth coaches for the Solon Recreation Department. The primary intent, at least for me, was to earn some community service hours to bolster the ol' college resume.
Never did I imagine, three years later, how big a part coaching would play in my life.
We originally just wanted to coach flag football. Then it expanded to basketball and baseball. Pretty soon we were coaching indoor and outdoor soccer, albeit reluctantly.
(Though we felt fairly comfortable in our knowledge about football, basketball and baseball, us coaching a youth soccer team was like Brittney Spears trying to teach a kid how to sing. In other words, it wasn't pretty and probably more detrimental to the kids than anything else.)
I still remember our first flag football team, a group of first and second graders. Most had never played football before. They didn't know any of the positions and couldn't really run any plays (it took us about halfway through the season that most of the kids didn't know their right from their left yet.)
The one area the kids excelled at, though, was keeping score. Six points for a touchdown, one more for the conversion - they were on top of it. Of course, since the kids were so young, the Rec didn't keep score or track wins and losses - but our kids sure did.
We coached another memorable team, basketball, fifth and sixth graders that Stu's brother Daniel played on. They were a great bunch of kids - Daniel, Tim, the Kearney twins - plus they were pretty good. After the season, which ended with a heartbreaking loss in the playoffs, we took the kids to Mitchell's Ice Cream and ended up hanging out there for over an hour. I even walked over to EB Games with the Kearney's where they persuaded me to but them a $5 video game. It didn't take much persuading.
Without a doubt though, and I'll speak for Stu and Amol here, our favorite group was a baseball team of fith and sixth graders ("Majors"). We coached Daniel and Tim again, as well as Aaron, who singlehandedly beat our basketball team in that playoff game. We also had a player by the name of Luke Bando. You may have heard of his dad Chris, who played for the Indians, or his uncle Sal, an All-Star on those great Oakland A's teams in the 70's. Needless to say, Luke was the best hitter, pitcher and fielder in the league. He even switch hit, and was more successful from the left side than his natural right side. And boy, did he have a cannon for an arm.
That team only lost one game (when we played with a bunch of third graders called up from the younger league). We won games in all types of fashion; thrilling come-from-behind victories, 10-run rules, everything. We cruised through the playoffs and easily won the league championship. To this day, I don't remember who was happier - the kids or me.
But now it's all come to an end. We coached our last baseball team this summer, a Pony league team of seventh and eighth graders. Stu, Amol and I all work, and it's tough to make it to the games sometimes - I missed over half due to work. Plus, we went through a very rocky season. Most of the kids wouldn't show up until right before the game started, leaving us to wonder if we could even field a team. We would always have to call up two or three kids from the younger league just to have enough players. And it was pretty easy to tell that a lot of them really didn't want to be there.
Considering how much fun the past few years were, it was disappointing to go out this way - almost like the star athlete who's trying to hang on for a few more seasons, even though he's way past his prime.
I was still able to meet the team, or what was left of it, at Dairy Queen tonight after our final game. We lost in the playoff semifinals, a game that, like so many others this year, we should have won. I came straight from work and by the time I got there, it was just Amol and three of the kids. Pretty fitting, I thought, as all I could think of were the happier moments of years past.
Those memories, though fading as time goes on, are how I'll choose to remember our Solon Rec coaching experiences. In the end, I'm glad we could give all of those kids the same opportunities that we had, to play Rec sports and have a good time.
And those memories? I wouldn't trade them for anything.