The John Wooden of Little League
Opening Day of the East Marietta Little League season, I sat in the bleachers overlooking the Sewell Mill Park ball field. I was excited as I anticipated something very special.
Every spring in Marietta, Georgia, the Little Leaguers dress in their uniforms, gloves and ball caps, pile in pickup trucks and parade down the main strip to the field for opening ceremony.
Today was extra special; it was the twentieth anniversary of the 1983 Little League World Series, when the team from Marietta won it all.
My ten year old, John sat on his glove in the field next to his teammates, waiting for the men at the podium to speak. Eleven of the fourteen players on that historic team were there including one who'd gone on to pitch for the Chiago Cubs.
But really everything that morning seemed to revolve around the man in the middle, the skipper for that team and many others during his thirty-eight years coaching Little League; the man my son called his favorite coach, Richard Hilton.
"What was it that made him stand out from all the other coaches?" I wondered. "He looks like Santa, just not as big." I overheard one of the younger kids say, I laughed. Coach Hilton certainly drew those comparisons with his white hair, white beard and rosy smiling face.
I'd first met Coach Hilton the year before, when John played on his ball team. Everyone had rave reviews. "Did you know he turned down a promotion at work so he could still coach the kids?" another parent asked me. That didn't surprise me once I saw how good he was with John.
The first team Coach Hilton ever managed was his son's team and now 38 years later, he still treats his players like family.
My son really wanted to play second base, but since he wasn't a strong fielder, other coaches had him stuck in right field. When Coach Hilton got John, he put him on second and began to develop the skills in John necessary to play second.
The Coach gave John extra fielding practice to help him become more at ease and flexible in a variety of circumstances. I got used to waiting 15 minutes after practice, watching my son field grounders or take a few last swings in the batting cage.
Coach Hilton cared about the boys off field as much as he did on field. One afternoon last fall, I found John at the table doing his homework before practice-without nagging from me. I must have looked startled because John said, "Coach says we should get our homework done before we play ball."
It was far more than winning with Coach Hilton. Character and attitude were very important to him. He encouraged the kids continually to find better ways to say and express how they were feeling.
But it didn't seem to me that it was those things alone that set Coach Hilton apart. There was more, I just couldn't put my finger on it. Everyone had the same love and respect for him that the kids had. What was that special something that was so hard to define?
The ceremony started. One by one, the former players shared stories from that magical season twenty years ago. Back then, the boys had to win fourteen games in a row to take home the Little League World Series Title. [Today, a round robin tournament means a team can lose and still advance if they win all their other games.]
What really amazed me is how successful each of those players twenty years ago, went on to be. They had become presidents of companies, managers, police officers, doctors, teachers and one went on to play Pro Baseball.
Each one in turn, credited their coach as a role model and mentor. The pitcher for the Cubs? He had come back to Marietta and inspired by Coach Hilton, signed up to coach one of the Little League teams, himself. The Coach had passed the baton and a new story is in the making.
I saw my son John sitting on the field, listening closely and enthralled by what he heard. The Ceremony ended and John and I, headed home to relax before returning for practice in a few hours. "I think I want to coach someday," John told me as we walked to the car. Was that what made a truly great coach? Someone who inspires others to follow in their path?
John couldn't stop talking about all the former players until it was almost time to drive back to the field. He went to get his things. Why was he taking so long? "We're going to be late!" I said, as I was walking down the hall to his room. John was rifling through his closet. He looked up at me, clearly upset. "My glove," he said, "I can't find it." We searched the whole house to no avail.
"Maybe you left your glove at the field," I said, "We'll look for it there." John got into the car, but he wasn't a happy camper. Neither was I. "No way that glove is still there all these hours later..." I thought. First day of practice and no glove; a sad way to start the season.
We pulled into the parking lot. I was surprised to see Coach Hilton's red and white truck. What was he doing here? I waved at him. "I thought you would be out celebrating," I told him.
"Well, I was going to," he said. "But I couldn't let one of my Little Leaguers practice without this." He pulled a worn leather glove from his truck, John's glove. "I found it on the field."
There, I had it-the answer to my question. What makes a great Coach or a great person? Putting other people first, leading with love and encouragement. In Little League or in life, it's those little extras- putting focus on another's life, looking for ways to lift up, encourage or help another on their journey. That's the difference between a good coach and a great coach. Great coaches are more than just coaches; they are great leaders. They lead by example.
"Thank you, Coach!" John said, as he bounded off toward the field. I couldn't tell who was happier-John or his favorite Coach.
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