About three years after moving to Wilmington, I found myself living the life of a single father. Danny was in the first grade. Josh was starting third grade.
There were times when I felt like we were living the life of Andy Griffith and his son Opie in Mayberry — we even did a lot of fishing.
The boys had made plenty of friends in our neighborhood and their elementary school. I knew many fine people at work who I considered to be friends, but our focus was on our small family unit. Being recently divorced and having custody of the boys brought some pressure on this young Dad, but we enjoyed ourselves.
We had fun when we were together. Whether we were building a treehouse, fishing, getting chores done or just hanging out, we had fun. Sometimes I would drive the car into the back yard, and we would spend most of the day soaping and rinsing the car and soaking each other.
That usually ended in a major water fight using bottles, buckets and hoses. Neighbor kids usually joined in the water works. It was great fun.
About that same time, the YMCA decided to start a youth soccer program. Josh and Danny wanted to play. Even though none of us knew anything about soccer, I said, “Fine. Coaches will be there. They will teach you and coach you.”
Bud Lewis (one of the greatest soccer minds this community has ever seen) and some of his Wilmington College players were at the first practice. They assured us that everything would be fine. From that, I assumed they would be the coaching staff for the youth YMCA program.
A few days later, I received a call from Bud saying they needed volunteer coaches. I had met Coach Lewis months earlier at a meeting of the Wilmington Optimist Club. I knew him to be a winning coach and a fine person.
Soon, he asked me to consider taking on a team as their coach. I tried to explain that I knew nothing about coaching a soccer team or even the rules of the game. Bud was determined. He said he would train the coaches and give us all the material we needed.
Bud Lewis was a hard man to tell, “No.” By the end of the phone call, I was a soccer coach. The YMCA sweetened the pot by telling me that I could have both of my sons on my team.
Besides, they said, “No one around here knows the rules to the game. You’ll be fine.”
The YMCA soccer program was to be considered an “Instructional League.” The goal of each practice and even the games was not to win, but to learn the game. They wanted the coaches to put an emphasis on learning the various positions and the basic rules of the game. I told them that I would teach my team whatever I was taught.
I did my best to pass along Bud’s soccer knowledge just as it was given to me.
One of the most important things Bud told me was, “Make sure the kids are having fun.”
I insisted that the parents bring their little soccer players to our first practice. I also insisted that they stick around for a while. I sent the kids across the field to kick soccer balls at each other while I spoke with their parents.
During our little pre-practice chat, I assured each parent that their little soccer player would each play every position on the team and that they would each play an equal amount of time and each player would sit out an equal amount of time. I wanted to give each player the same amount of playtime at every position.
As soon as the parents left, we started having fun.
I soon had my players dribbling the ball up and down the field. Very quickly, I found out that the kids had a lot more fun when they were racing each other. From then on, whenever we practiced, we made a real game of it. Everything was a competition. I tried to make everything fun.
As they raced each other up and down the field, I even joined them. There were a few of them I could beat, but several of them could dribble circles around their ol’ coach.
I was horrible. They laughed at me, and that was fine. We were having fun. We even won a few games. It was an honor to be called “Coach.”
Nearly 25 years later, all my players were grown and gone. About that time, as Clinton County commissioner, I was meeting with the leadership team at the Airborne Express offices. One of their young men looked vaguely familiar.
As we introduced ourselves, he looked me in the eye and said, “Hello, Coach. It’s good to see you.”
Immediately, I recognized him as one of my former soccer players. He was one of the boys who could run circles around his old coach.
He was an impressive young soccer player. He is still a very impressive young man.
Being called “Coach” was fun in the early 1980s.
I considered it an honor to be called “Coach” so many years later.
Randy Riley is a former mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County commissioner.