Nov 12, 2013

Failing to Find Your Niche - 2

Coach Hofmann tossed a rope and helped pull me out of the muck in high school.

He's perpetually 65 years old; looked it when I was in school 20 yrs ago and is the same today.  Blue polyester shorts without exception, even through winter.  He was somehow able to pull off the Daisy Dukes and tube socks without being creepy.  Everyone was okay with it.

One afternoon, we had to run a mile on the track for P.E. class.  We all groaned.  Stopwatch on a rope, he watched me slog the four laps in snail mode.  Finished in the double digits, something like 11 minutes.  He later called me into the office and asked if I'd like to join the track team.

"Uh, sorry, but I'm slow.  I would enjoy track except for the part where you have to run."

He grinned, quietly said you're a diamond in the rough, then dismissed me.

Coach kept at it, enlisting an upperclassman to recruit.  The senior recommended I try track for a week, then decide if I wanted to join.

Back at home, I asked dad what he thought about it.  He promptly talked me out of it, saying he disliked track when in school, he wasn't any good and it would likely be the same for me.

Next day I told coach no thanks and decided to try wrastlin' instead.

That didn't go well, 103 pounder in a purple spandex hogsuit getting pinned in 15 seconds by an opponent born without legs.  I was barked at to lose weight and polished the season with a 0-12 record.  It was another mark on my fail kill streak.

Sophomore year, I softened to coach's plea and reluctantly joined the cross country team.  Then the track team in the spring, slowly improving times each meet.  It eventually clicked and I could keep pace with the stronger runners in the state.  There was that hometown meet against top ranked City High, I was a thorn in their side and finished second:

Finally finding something I wasn't terrible at was a new thing.  I wanted more, to discover what else might come easy or improve through practice.

Coach taught me that I should say yes when asked to try new things.  The worst that can happen is a fail, and I was already pretty good at that.

Saying yes has gotten me to India at work, blogging for fun for a company of 15,000 and sharing my adventures with an auditorium.  Public speaking's not my thing, it's actually terrifying and I'm not good at it.  But I rarely say no when asked to try something new.  I will pass this spirit to my daughter:  Yes = adventure, often failure too but learn to deal with it.

I met my best friend on the track team, he set me on the right trail.  Chris was a moderately slow runner, was coated in animal-like body hair (Chewbacca) and had issues with hyperactive sweating.

two on the left

He leaked so profusely that Coach contacted various experts for help, including a Texas U. sports doc.  Chris was a sweaty mess after a simple hammy stretch session before we started practice.  Which was gross, because I was his stretching partner and he deposited leg-shaped sweat smears everywhere, sometimes on me.  The ground beneath him after stretching looked like snow angels but with body grease.

Looking back, maybe a full body Schick would have helped the sweat problem.

Although running wasn't really his thing, Chris had laser focus and was a monster in class, acing everything his #2 touched.  You know the type, calculus was cake and he was a professional brown noser.  Think he scored 36 on the ACT.

He was a man with a plan, applying for all manner of scholarships and submitting university apps when he was 16.  He graduated valedictorian of our class of 400 and colleges clamored for a piece of him.  Today, he's a doctor of physical therapy, skills.

As a teen, I wanted to be like him and sketch out a path towards where I wanted to be.  My parents were mostly mute on going to college.  But Chris' drive was contagious, opening my eyes to realize skipping education would put the killsaw to my future options.

Chris taught me that setting direction early in life, crafting a plan and hard work are key to long term happiness and success.  Also learned it's possible to sweat through a pair of Wranglers...that guy's pores were kooked.

Earlier this spring, I returned to my hometown of Burlington to race the 6 mile Bridge Run.  The route climbs Snake Alley, crosses the Mississippi River into Illinois and loops back around for an Iowa finish.  Took the W. and 100 bucks.  Chris also raced, pushing his daughter in the stroller and placing in the top 5.

I knew Coach reads the paper, so dedicated the run to him.  Gave him a shout-out in The Hawkeye and thanked him for bugging me to run 20 years ago.  And for seeing potential, a diamond in the rough.

Life would be different today, an alternate ending in a bad way, if I hadn't crossed paths with Coach who led me to Chris during those key teen years.  I'd be with belly and without my current job if we never met.

They, more than my own family, made me who I am.

To be continued...


  1. Wow, another lurker here. I wish I could somehow get this thru to my 19 yo son. It feels like everything I say and do to encourage him just makes him angry. It's hard to find the line between help/encouragement and enabling. I keep plugging along because he's my kid and I love him. I enjoy your writing, thanks for the insight.

    1. What does he like to do and what is he good at? My next post will touch on this topic, sometimes we need to keep trying new things until we find what works. In son's case, his job now is to get educated, whether that is formal college, apprenticeship or the like.

  2. From your strategic cropping, I'm assuming you'd like to keep the name "Beard" and not your real name. If that's the case, just know that bib numbers are like a paved road to easy identifying. Maybe you could fuzz it out...

    1. Nobody reading this blog has asked my name, Eric.

  3. I almost spit out my tea reading this earlier. What a wonderful lesson to pass on. I need to work at saying yes more.

  4. Great post, saying yes to new things can definitely make a difference. If I hadn't said yes to that 5k race challenge in June I would not have know how much I love running however saying yes all the time can be exhausting. I have had to learn to say no to things of find a way to cram 8 extra hours in a day.

    1. Let me clarify a bit...although we sometimes need to decline due to lack of time or to maintain sanity, saying no because we're afraid or uncertain of our ability is what I'm encouraging people to push through. Opportunity awaits!

      You are officially hooked on the running bug, enjoy it.


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