Coach Steve Porter, RIP

My brother Steve emailed me with the news that our high school cross-country coach, Steve Porter, had died last Friday. My brother called last night to be sure I’d gotten the email. We talked for quite a while.
When anyone dies at age 53, it only makes sense to call it “unexpected,” but my brother and I pooled our detective skills and limited information to try to guess what had happened. My brother, a volunteer fireman, had come to his conclusion, probably correct, based on the hospital involved and his assessment of emergency procedures, but expected to talk to others with more information later.
I’ve thought about Coach Porter over the years, both for the enormous impact of his coaching on me and the puzzling end of his coaching career in what can accurately be called a scandal that was both too public to deny its existence and too confusing to reconcile with the experiences we all had.
I haven’t had many links to Vietnam in my life, but Coach Porter’s story was one that we all felt showed some of the wounds of Vietnam. He had been a state champion track star who enlisted in the army to become a clerk typist in Indianapolis. He ended up as an MP in Saigon where both his knees were broken breaking up a bar fight. That was the story he told us, with a fair amount of bitterness.
Coach Porter didn’t mention the Bronze Star the obituary covered, but neither did my great-aunt who got her star as a POW in the Philippines in World War II.
Coach Porter walked with a limp and, unlike many coaches, he never ran with us. We would joke and tease him about many things, but we left that subject alone.
My high school athletic career was modest at best, and a bit checkered. My focus was on track, primarily the hurdles and quarter-mile, if you are interested.
The unwritten rule at Garrett High School was that you needed to participate in a fall sport – football or cross-country – to run track in the spring. At the end of the summer before my junior year, I had some surgery (my memory is that Richard Nixon resigned while I was in the hospital) that kept me from participating in the fall sports. If I would have done the expected and hung with my friends, I would have securely held down the end of the bench on the football team that won the state small school football championship in Indiana in 1974. Of course, I’d now be making jokes like my friend Mike Wilcox that if they invite him to the championship team reunions, they must also be inviting the tackling dummies.
The following spring track season was a hellish experience that drained most of the enjoyment I had for running out of me. We had a coach who embodied almost every negative stereotype of coaches that you can think of. To this day, you can get my high school buddies to rant for at least 45 minutes straight just by mentioning this coach’s name.
Among his other dubious practices, he had an ever-changing and incomprehensible set of zillions of rules, with fines for even the tiniest infractions, and suspensions for almost anything else. I was suspended for a week for going to a restaurant for lunch after my events were over at the day-long Goshen Relays, going the Penguin Point restaurant, which still was in business the last time I drove through Goshen, as track teams had been doing for years. He made a rule against it after the fact and suspended people for breaking it. I was suspended again for telling him that I was going to the academic honor banquet instead of a track meet that conflicted with it. That suspension was lifted as soon as parents and the administration heard about it. If you’ve ever heard Johnny Rotten singing “No Fun,” you’ll have a good idea of what I felt like.
At the last meet of the season, I ran a couple of different events and found some of the fun I had been missing. A week or so later, I ran the half-mile in an open event in the neighboring big city with some of my track pals and wondered if I had found the right race for me. My running buddies were all planning to run cross-country and, despite my reservations about running two-and-a-half mile races, I agreed to join up and spend the summer running with them. One of the selling points was that there would be a new coach coming in.
Sometime during the summer, I got into a pattern of running twice a day. In the mornings, I’d run with Neal Esselburn and one or two others. In the evenings, Dan Somers would come over to my house and we’d go for a run in the evening. I’d never trained in anything like that manner nor had more fun doing so.
As it turned out, the summer of 1975 was a magical time in the small town of Garrett, Indiana. The Garrett pool and the big parking lot and park that surrounded it became a gathering point for kids from the surrounding area. I’ve always wanted to write a book or make a movie about that summer and the way it became the kind of scene that small town teenagers have ever hoped for – kids sitting on cars on warm summer nights, listening to music, hanging out with friends, meeting new people. The movie “Dazed and Confused” captures the time very well, but it’s not my movie.
Of course, it all got shut down by the following summer, but I’ll still take a swing by there when I’m back in Garrett, just to see if anything is happening. Last time, I found it was against the law even to ride your bike into the parking lot.
Dan and I got into a routine where we’d go out for a long run that always ended up at the pool. It wasn’t really a party. It was more of a comfortable gathering spot where young people could hang out with young people in a cool way that I’ve not often seen. My mom and dad used to comment that we had an unusual running route – we left running at 6:00 and then a carload of girls would drop us off at home around midnight. These were the days before central air conditioning and with windows open, it was hard to keep much secret. As they say, we were all just friends, living a big friendly vibe in our little space.
School eventually arrived and we’d heard rumors of the new cross-country coach, mainly about his military background and the cool car he drove. I’m sure it was Neal who talked us all into buying neon green adidas SL-76 running shoes, which probably distinguished from other small town cross-country teams even more than we expected. In a way, it was a first test for Coach Porter, in what may well have been his first coaching and teaching job. The track coach would have kicked us off the team for wearing shoes he didn’t approve. There was no way, constitutionally, that he could have tolerated them. In fact, during the following winter, he made it clear that we’d all have to get different running shoes if we wanted to run track in the spring.
Looking back at the pictures, it was quite a crew that Coach Porter faced when he first met us, with Neal, who had decided to bleach his hair the blondest blonde imaginable, leading us. It was quite a collection of free spirits.
What I’ll always admire about Coach Porter is that he met us from the start with an attitude of respect and trust. He expected that from us, but, more important, he gave that to us as well. One of his first announcements was to say that he was not going to have a bunch of rules, prohibitions and curfews. In fact, he didn’t expect to have any. Loud applause. He believed that if we cared about the team, ourselves and what we wanted to accomplish, we would do the right things. Plus, he said with a smile, his practices would make us want to avoid the consequences of the behaviors we all knew were wrong.
He liked to schedule early Saturday morning practices, with the subtle threat of moving them to an earlier start time or even scheduling them on a Sunday if he got wind of the types of parties so aptly captured in the movie “Dazed and Confused.”
In fact, probably all of us on the team would point to one early morning practice following a big Friday night party that most of the town probably attended. We ended that practice running hundred-yard sprints on the football field, one right after another, until, mutually, the target clearly became one hundred. Tired as we were, winning that hundredth sprint became a badge of honor we all wanted. I was pretty fast at that distance, but I have no doubt that everyone there remembers that he won that last sprint. And that’s the way it should be remembered. We won it together.
Coach Porter had that unusual ability to get you to push yourself and get more out of yourself than you ever expected. He’d push and cajole, but mainly he put the challenge out there for you and give you his confidence that you could do it because of his confidence that you could do it. I realized over time that this type of approach and environment of respect, trust, freedom, support, challenge and genuine care about people is the place where I thrive.
Another great memory everyone has involved one of the few times that Coach Porter took on a acting persona that did not match the genuine approach we expected. We had performed well below our expectations in a race where we should have done much better and could have surprised some very good competition. We were as disappointed as he was.
At the next practice, Coach Porter had us sit on bleachers and wait for him to come out to talk to us. When he came out, he was carrying a clipboard and had on what he thought was a very angry face. We thought it was comical but kept very quiet. He launched into a well-rehearsed tirade that was completely out of character, ending when he threw down his clipboard in his “fury.” When he threw the clipboard, we all burst out laughing. Seconds later, so did he.
He shared the laugh with us and then spoke simply about his disappointment and our disappointment and inspired us to work harder than any tirade ever could have. It is a rare person who can make that turn. He was also cool enough to tolerate our joking with him later by asking whether it was “time to throw the clipboard again?” I could have imagined at least one other coach who would have kicked us all off the team on the spot.
When I look back, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity and a coach who took me about as far as my athletic skills (and too-high arches) would take me. I have both a mental and a physical memory of what it is like to be in great physical condition, all of which helped me lose a significant amount of weight (and keep it off) over the past few years.
My current approach to cycling is also shaped by that cross-country season, especially the impulse to tack on another mile when I reach the point that I promised myself that I’d stop. That comes from what Coach Porter called the “dreaded fifth man” practice, which was designed to identify the person who would be expected to take up the responsibility for being the final person whose score counted for the team score.
Our running course was on a golf course. In essence, it involved a half-mile start and then two one-mile loops. The idea was that, during this practice, we would have the standard 2-1/2 mile race among ourselves. When we neared the finish line, Coach Porter yelled, “Take another lap!” We hesitated for a second, and then raced another lap. We got to the end and he yelled, “Take another lap!” Away we went. There might have been another round – maybe not. You never know what you can accomplish, and the fun you can have reaching there, until you are challenged by someone who you feel knows what you are capable of.
Unfortunately, in my case, I also learned the limits of running that much on feet that were not built to take the pounding. The “dreaded fifth man” practice probably was the pinnacle of my running career before foot problems set in. I often, however, find myself saying “take another lap!” as I approach home after a long bike ride.
Over time, I found myself adopting many elements of Coach Porter’s style and approach to coaching and mentoring, especially trying to create an environment where people can excel at what they do best. If you ever work with me, you’ll notice an absence of a bunch of rules, a respect for your professionalism and the assumptions that I can have confidence in you doing what you do best, that you are at heart a responsible person and that you understand and accept the consequences of your decisions and your actions. I will, however, push you to reach levels that I think you are capable of, even if you do not yet realize you can achieve them. And, I try to keep a good sense of humor about things. If I ever tried to slam down a clipboard to make a point, I know I’d fall on the floor laughing at myself.
Coach Porter and I never had a relationship that featured long, extensive conversations. It was always shorter and more to the point. I dragged out my high school yearbook tonight because I knew that Coach Porter wrote something in my senior year book. It said simply, “You’re fast. Get faster.” It might surprise you to hear that these few words meant a lot to me then. Still do.
I’d like to say that all this came to a happy ending. I’m not sure that it did. In protest, all or almost all of the cross-country team refused to run track the following spring. As I alluded to earlier, the ban against our SL-76 shoes even before the season started indicated what we might expect. For me, a case of mono made it all a moot point anyway.
I heard about Coach Porter over the years from my buddies who occasionally saw him, but I believe I never had the chance to speak with him again after leaving Garrett for college. My youngest brother, Steve, ran cross-country for Coach Porter for a year, maybe two, after I graduated, and was around when things fell apart. Even so, to this day, there’s no one else I call “Coach.”
Here’s where I try to reach the happy ending. Maybe four or five years ago, I got home and played back the phone messages. To my surprise, I heard the voice of Coach Porter. He had found my website and read through it. He decided to give me a call to congratulate me on what I had accomplished, and to say he was proud of what I was doing and had done, and that he had a special place in his heart for that first season. He was pleased to see that I had realized potential that he felt that I had when he coached me back in Garrett. It was more of a statement than an invitation and, in a way, I was not surprised that he left no phone number for me to call him back.
I thought for a while about keeping a recording of that message. Time elapsed and, as these systems work, the message disappeared. If Coach Porter had sent an email, I might be quoting from it now. Instead, I have a memory of a voicemail. My memory, though, is of a message that is exactly the type of message you would hope to receive from someone highly influential in your early life when he or she looked over what you had later gone on to accomplish. In its way, that’s a magical thing. It’s ephemeral, however, and doesn’t quite take the place of a conversation, especially one where you can say thank you.
Coach Porter, this essay is my attempt to say a belated thank you. May you rest in peace.