As a late primary grade student and middle school student, I suffered from a tremendous amount of self-doubt. I was one of those kids that was perceived as odd and different. Even now I don’t completely understand why. I believe I was a nice enough boy, but I was a sensitive young man and that vulnerability may have been seen as a target for others my age.
Regardless the reason, as a result I suffered from depression and loneliness. There is little point in trying to rank or compare levels of depression, but I believe it can be valuable to share that as a result I did see a psychiatrist for several years. So students, when I say there is no shame in saying to others, “Help me,” I tell you that because I carry no shame from needing help when I was young.
With this background, I will share a piece of my passion for cross country. I was 13 years old, an odd boy in many ways. I loved school and learning, especially math and science. I participated in a variety of sports, pretty good in many, exceptional in none. I found a niche for myself by being willing to play the positions and do the things that weren’t popular for most. In soccer I was the goalie, in baseball I played catcher, in basketball I loved to rebound. As a result I tended to find a way to have value to a team while also never quite fitting in, always a bit different. Coaches appreciated me, but to my peers I was just a bit different.
My freshman year was about to begin, and I held all sorts of anxieties inside of me. I was headed to Cherry Creek High School, a school of ~4000 students. It was an easy place to feel lost, to feel alone amongst many, and a seemingly impossible place to make an impact. Then I was invited to cross country practice by a friend from middle school named George Keyes. George was not a close friend at the time, more of an acquaintance. Practice had been going for a week already, but the coach had asked the team members to each invite someone to their time trial that Saturday. I told George I would think about it, and I spoke to my father that evening about joining the team. My father’s eyes lit up at once, and I learned that my father was the school record holder in the mile at his high school. I don’t know why he had never told me that before. My desire to become part of something was strong, and my father’s encouragement that evening sealed the deal. I would go to the time trial and see what I could do. I can’t emphasize enough that my initial motivation was to see what I could do. If I was good and could live up to what my father had just told me, I would join. If I was awful, it would have been a one-day experiment.
Consider the absurdity of that initial motivation. I hadn’t run one day that summer, I hadn’t been to a practice yet, but I was headed that next morning to a time trial of a cross country team at a school with 4000 students and was going to determine my participation on how successfully I ran. The logical conclusion would be that I would perform poorly (comparing myself to others) and not join the XC team. Half of that conclusion is true.
I showed up the next morning wearing high top basketball shoes and an Angels baseball cap (that I always wore backwards–remember I was a catcher in baseball). The initial greeting was like nothing I had ever experienced. When I arrived, several guys immediately approached me and introduced themselves. It was that day I meet Brian Anderson and Mike Newman and many many others. The coach at Cherry Creek had clearly put forth a team challenge and created an intentional atmosphere that while there was a time trial to be run, this day was about gathering a few recruits and winning their hearts, presenting an atmosphere that this was a team others could belong to. George, Brian, and Mike were the super-glue that, even before the time-trial begun, got me stuck to the team without consciously realizing it.
I predictably enough ran not very well (in my mind comparing myself to those who had already been training for months). I was as mentioned previously an adequate athlete and did exercise quite a bit, so my time was ~23:45 (definitely one of the slowest there). But the time was irrelevant. What absolutely sealed the deal was that toward the end of the time trial a junior girl named Jill Chonowski came running back to cheer on others. She had taken the time to ask someone else what my name was and I heard her voice encouraging me on (and others) to finish the race strong. I can tell you she became in that moment an angel of beauty to me (and my first crush, a story for another time perhaps). I had never experienced such an overwhelming sense of acceptance from complete strangers before. George, Brian, Mike, and Jill, among others, wanted me to feel a part of a team that I hadn’t belonged to before that morning.
This is why Pella Cross County will always look for new runners, freshman or senior. This is why we allow students to join late when people could argue it is logically too late and “not fair.” This is why every May I tell potential recruits that even if they don’t run one mile over the summer, I still want them to be part of the team. This is why we preach family and relationships at practice more than we speak of victory and medals. This is why, years from now, I hope you each look back at running cross country as a wonderful time and see how it prepared you for all your future experiences. We all need to feel that we are accepted for who we are, especially at a time in our lives when we are only just discovering who that person is.
So I coach Cross Country. It’s another example in my life of a dream and aspiration to do something that others wouldn’t necessarily pick first. I’m sure others see coaching football or basketball as more glamorous, but this is where I belong. It has been since the fall of 1989. This is where events impacted my life, and I believe I can now make an impact trying to ensure that you each learn the following truths: You are each a valuable part of who we are. You are each an essential member of our family, no matter what time you finish in, your level of commitment on day one, or your motivation for coming to practice. You have chosen to be part of Pella Cross Country and our FOCUS is now complete acceptance of you. Acceptance of who you are, what you can give, and what you aspire to become.