I have the best job in the world! Having the opportunity to earn a living doing what I love is something that I certainly do not take for granted. It’s always interesting to think back and reflect upon all the opportunities, mentors, and setbacks that have shaped me into the person and teacher that I am today. Undoubtedly, the support and generosity of my parents and siblings have shaped my outlook more than I could ever possibly repay. No matter the situation or obstacle, my mom always helps me keep things in perspective. “Think positive thoughts! Everything happens for a reason.” She often tells me.
This blog post is a bit different than my normal “teacher-centered” posts… this is a personal throwback. The following essay is an “Autosnap Midterm” paper about a personal mentor that I wrote during my first semester in my teacher education program at Northern Illinois University. My professor gave me some flattering, positive feedback; and even told me that I should try to get it published! I never attempted to publish, however, I figured that it may be a nice blog post to inspire children and adults to be growth minded, recognize opportunities, and do what makes you happy.
October 4, 2004
I look back over my shoulder to check the scoreboard displayed behind me in left field and then take a couple steps in to make sure that I can still make a play at the plate if the hitter drops a single in front of me. With two outs and runners on first and second, we are barely hanging on to a one-run lead. The pitch is fired inside and the right-handed batter gets around on it to send a high line drive in my direction. I turn to my right in a full sprint as I try to focus on the ball over my left shoulder. I leap up and reach with my left hand to snag the ball out of the air. As the ball hits my glove’s pocket, my face and body collide with the chain link fence. The fence gives way just enough to sling shot my somersaulting body back on to the warning track. My legs and feet tumble over my head as I try to find my balance enough to stand up in one fluid motion. Turning back toward the infield, I raise my glove to signal that I had hung onto the ball and secured the victory.
After the game ended, I gathered my bag and was walking out to my parents’ car when a middle-aged man with a scruffy red beard approached me. He said, “Son, I think you have just made the best catch I have ever seen.” I genuinely thanked the man and continued on my way home.
Three years later, I was a sophomore at Columbus High School. The sophomore team was struggling, and I was not getting any playing time. One day after practice, my sophomore coach said that varsity coach Tom O’Leary wanted to see me. I immediately felt confused and wondered if I had done something wrong. I stayed after practice and waited for the varsity coaches to arrive. I had never spoken to the coaches before (or at least that is what I thought at the time). I walked up to Coach O’Leary and introduced myself. He said, “Son, I’ve been following you since you were in seventh grade. How would you like to dress for tonight’s game with the big boys?” I then realized where I had seen that scruffy red beard before. I was ecstatic, nervous, and confused all at the same time as I accepted his offer. I could not understand why he wanted me to join varsity when I was not getting playing time on the sophomore team.
I was extremely nervous throughout the game as I only knew a couple of the varsity players. After we had secured a comfortable 9-1 lead, I ended up getting a pinch-hit single in my first varsity at bat. I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders as I rounded first and returned to an extended handshake from Coach O’Leary. “See!” he said, “this is where you’ve belonged all along.”
From that day on, I was a full time starter on the sophomore and junior varsity teams. I participated in two practices a day, which was difficult as I was only fifteen years of age and did not have a driver’s license. Coach O’Leary took me under his wing and told me that I was going to be his project for the next three years. He said, “If you do what I tell you, you’re gonna love this game as much as I do.”
For the first week of practice, he focused on changing my arm throwing motion from a three-quarter side arm to directly over the top. He took me aside and taught me about the physics of the ball’s spin and how I would have much more control and power if I threw it this way. I worked hard every second of every practice that entire season and did exactly what Coach O’Leary told me to do. If he told me to loosen up my grip at the plate during batting practice, I did it. If he told me to focus on my footwork while fielding a ground ball in the outfield, I did it. Without fail, the results spoke for themselves.
I was named the starting varsity center fielder as a junior. Coach O’Leary confidently defended my center field positioning even though I was not the fastest outfielder. He always preached to me about center field being the captain of the defense as well as the best fielder on the grass. I loved the grass. I loved center field. I loved the game of baseball. Coach O’Leary had given me so much confidence that every time I stepped on the baseball field I knew that I had the tools in place to get the job done.
I was unanimously voted team captain my senior year and led the team to a successful season. I went on to play baseball at Loras College and lead by example every time I strapped on the cleats. I graduated from Loras College with a business marketing degree and worked a couple jobs in sales for a few years in the Chicago area. I knew I could not spend the rest of my life doing a job that did not make me happy. I was badly in need of some guidance.
In the summer of 2003, I returned to my hometown in Iowa for the wedding of Coach O’Leary’s niece, a good friend of my sister. Upon walking into the church, the first face I saw was the red-bearded one of Coach O’Leary. We made eye contact immediately, and he gave me the silent underhanded fist pump I had seen so many times before. That night at the reception, he told me about how he still tells his players stories about me. My eyes began to well up as he went on about how I wasn’t the fastest or most talented athlete but that I played the game with heart. His wife even came up to me and told me how much he loved coaching me. She kept going on and on about how those were his happiest times as a coach. I’ll never forget that night’s conversation with him. I had always known how much he had affected my life, but I never thought about how I fulfilled his.
Four months after our conversation at the reception, I resigned from my sales position and applied to Northern Illinois University in my pursuit to become a teacher and a coach. I always wonder how different my life would be right now if it weren’t for Coach O’Leary. He took a chance on me and is a major reason I am who I am today. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason; I can’t wait to be a reason for my students and athletes someday.