Editor’s note – This is the third of a four-part series on the 2016 Times-Gazette Highland County Athletic Hall of Fame inductees. They will be honored Thursday, June 23 at the Ponderosa Banquet Center in Hillsboro, along with 31 senior student-athletes. The 6 p.m. event is open to the public and tickets are available. Call 937-402-2522 for more information.
He had been a successful runner and still loved running, but sometime around his junior year in college it dawned on Bob Bergstrom that he really wasn’t going anywhere with it. So he decided to investigate coaching.
“I started going around to all the people and picking their brains about all their events,” Bergstrom said. “I realized I wasn’t really going anywhere with running, but maybe I could help some other people be successful. So when I’d get done with practice I’d just hang around and learn things from the jumpers, the throwers, the sprinters and everyone else.”
What resulted was 46-year coaching career that came to somewhat of a close this spring after 38 years as the head track coach at McClain High School. Along the way Bergstrom spent 30-plus years as an assistant football coach, has been a track and field official since 1978, a football official since 1995, and also been an official starter for scores of swimming meets.
He says this year was his last as a head track coach, but he plans to stick around as assistant.
Originally from Bristol, Conn., Bergstrom attended Bristol Eastern High School where he lettered two years in football, helped start the school’s wrestling program as a sophomore, and during his senior year in 1965 finished fourth in the state in the mile run.
Bergstrom eventually landed at Ohio Northern University where he ran track and as a sophomore became a member of the school’s first cross country team.
His first teaching job was a substitute position at Miami Trace where he served as a track coach in 1970 before heading back east to Plainfield, Conn. He was a teacher and coach there, serving as an assistant football coach, and in 1971 resurrected the school’s track program and served as its coach for seven years, winning league championships in four of those years.
He had met his wife, the former Elizabeth Herbert, in college and after they married she followed him to Connecticut. But she was from nearby Good Hope, Ohio, so in 1977 they moved to Greenfield. The following spring in 1978 Bergstrom served as an assistant track coach to Ron Wood. He took over the head coaching job the next year and has done it every year since.
“But I’m hanging it up. I’ll be a volunteer assistant, but I’ll let someone else have the headaches of being the head coach. I don’t want to be responsible every day,” Bergstrom said.
It was a love of sports from a young age, Bergstrom said, that kept him coming back year after year.
“We just played sports every day when I was growing up,” Bergstrom said. “It all depended in the season – football, basketball in the driveway, whiffle ball, baseball where you have to hit to the opposite field because there’s not enough players. A love of sports was always there because that’s what we did all the time.”
Among a long list of letters nominating Bergstrom for induction into The Times-Gazette Highland County Athletic Hall of Fame was one from one of his former runners, 1995 McClain graduate Scott Counter, who grew up catty-cornered from the Bergstrom family in Greenfield.
“Our neighborhood whiffle ball and football games would go well into dark. While he tried to get us to resume in the daylight, he would concede, knowing our competitive spirit was just too much,” Counter wrote. “The competitive spirit I developed during those formative years carried over when Bob became my coach. While he stoked that spirit, he also made sure we won and lost with class. Humility is a character trait that I carry with me to this day.
“I am only one voice in coach Bergstrom’s nomination, and one small piece in his multi-decade career as McClain’s head track and field coach. He taught work ethic, patience, selflessness, strong care values, and trust to hundreds of McClain athletes. His sacrifice to McClain High School, Highland County, Greenfield, his student-athletes, and me are immeasurable. I cannot thank him enough.
“The last time I had a conversation with him, he told me I was not the best sprinter he has coached at McClain. I was going to debate him, but remembered to be humble. He never stopped coaching.”
Bergstrom said he acquired the traits he tried to instill in decades of kids from his parents.
“They were very good people and involved with me in many of my activities and as a family,” he said. “They taught me right from wrong at an early age, and I was in Boy Scouts and learned how to live by the Scouts’ code. It was a way of life to always be honest, trustworthy, accept your accomplishments, and if you do something wrong, go on from there and try to do better the next time and become a better person through that.
“I’ve tried to teach the kids to become good citizens and to know that I care for them.”
After college Bergstrom took up road racing and continued well into his adult life. He said he’s competed in many 5Ks, 10Ks, and marathons – often winning his age group – and twice ran in the Boston Marathon. He’s coached two state champions – a shot putter in Connecticut and two-time state hurdles champion Dante Jackson at McClain.
He said would not have been able to do any of it without his wife. “I’m very thankful for that,” he said.
Bergstrom said he’s humbled that dozes of his student-athletes and colleagues would nominate him for the Highland County Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I never did any of this for me, it was for the love of sport,” Bergstrom said. “All my assistants have been a big help to me. When I started, Ron Wood taught me how things were done at McClain, and I still do it that way. I’ve just continued to pass the love of sport on to other people.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.