When going gets tough, tough get going

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking and talking about sports in the last couple of weeks.

It started with the nice run of state qualifiers in three sports, baseball, softball and track and field, that we had this year.

Then the school district Budget Committee finalized its proposed 2011-12 budget, which will go to the district Board of Trustees on June13 with some $1.7 million in cuts – including $20,000 from district athletics.

Then Bruce West passed away.

Bruce was a unique man, whom I didn’t know very well. I got the chance to interview him last fall for an article in our 55 Plus section and I was impressed. He was humble but self-assured and he was highly regarded as a coach and trainer. Even at 79, during the past swim season in which he helped Coach Doug Peargin as he had for more than 20 years, he was, Peargin said, the best man he’d ever seen with a stopwatch.

Just talking to Bruce, I could see why he was a good coach and why every team he’d ever coached, even in sports in which he’d never competed, such as cross-country and swimming, were successful. The guy didn’t say much but he was focused and direct and he just had a quiet assurance. If I were an athlete and he was dishing out the tough love, I’d run through a wall for the guy (sorry, I only swim when I have to).

I know I’m right in describing Bruce that way, because I heard the same thing from the speakers at his memorial service, held in Husky stadium in front of a crowd that was nearly as big as the ones that turn out for Sweet Home football games.

Peargin, who was one of West’s best friends away from the swimming pool as well as on the deck, said that when he asked Bruce to help coach a sport West had never played, “he caught on so fast it was scary.” He said it wasn’t long before he was learning things from West. The guy was good.

But Peargin, Pastor Steve McGuire and West’s daughter Peggy, who was a star swimmer and golfer for Sweet Home during her high school years, all spoke of something else even more important than West’s coaching acumen: his wisdom and his concern for kids.

“He never asked for pay, he never asked for anything, he never asked for a write-up,” Peargin said.

I can vouch for the latter because I had to twist Bruce’s arm – do a little fast talking – to get him to let me write a story about him.

Peargin also told how West had a knack for knowing how to handle youngsters and sometimes that required a stern lecture to get a point across. But then, Peargin said, West would turn away after the scolding with tears in his eyes.

“He was there to help kids,” Peargin said. “He was a man of few words but when he spoke there was wisdom in them.

“He had the biggest heart of any man I have ever known.”

I’d been thinking a lot about heart already before I heard, when I returned from the state track championships, that West had died.

At every state championship contest there is heart. Track and field is one of those sports that require the ability to go it alone, because there’s no one else you can hand the ball off to when it’s time to deliver.

What got me thinking about writing a column about the topic of heart was how disappointed our Sweet Home athletes were because they didn’t perform to the ultimate, essentially they didn’t overachieve like they have in recent years at the state meet.

This year, of course, we didn’t have a national-caliber decathlete in Dakotah Keys to give the boys team a big boost at state. Getting those 30-plus points from Dakotah was really valuable. (He was present at state, by the way, but with his throwing arm in a sling after surgery that has forced him to redshirt what would have been his first outdoor college track season.)

This year’s Husky boys were also hobbled, points-wise, by a serious hamstring injury to one of their top athletes, Alex Santana, Alex gutted it through the district meet and ran the 100 and anchored the 4×100 relay twice at state.

But instead of finishing in the top three in those events, which would likely have been the case if he’d been able to run normally, he finished 12th in the 100 and got the team to a sixth-place finish in the relay.

The fact that this was incredibly disappointing to him and the other team members just shows how high the bar has been for Sweet Home.

The same was true for the girls. The girls 4×100 relay team were reduced to tears by their second-place finish in that event – in the second-fastest time a Sweet Home team has ever run in the event. The distance runners had difficulties with the heat and illness and were unable to score points. Our star javelin thrower wasn’t physically able to deliver her usual Big Throw.

Sweet Home certainly had bright points, but it was a tough weekend for athletes who are used to putting a big exclamation mark on the end of their season.

In the end, the girls were happy to get a fourth-place trophy, Sweet Home’s third state girls trophy in a row and their third ever. But there were plenty of thoughts of what could have been if everything had fallen into place at the right time. I know. One of those distance runners lives in my own household.

It wasn’t just track. We also had a great run by our softball team this year, which suffered a heartbreaking loss to end their season way too early in the state playoffs. The baseball team won its first playoff game in a decade, though its run didn’t last past that.

It’s been a pretty good year, but pretty good isn’t enough for many of our athletes.

In a way, I’m glad because it’s good to shoot high.

When I was pondering a column about sports, I started jotting down some of the slogans on the backs of athletes’ T-shirts at the state track meet. Nearly every team has its favorite saying and some are witty and quite telling:

“There will come a point in a race where you will have to decide: Do I really want it?”

“Outrun. Outwork. Outplay.”

“To whom much is given, much is expected.”

“Championships are won while the stands are still empty.”

“Again … Faster.”

“Winning is an attitude.”

… and a couple of my favorites:

“Anyone can win a game. Few can change one.”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.” (On T-shirts worn by U.S. Marines recruiters at the meet)

While some sound a little rah-rah-ish, there is real resolve expressed in these slogans. They were worn by kids who had worked hard to get to state. Or, as the Canby team’s shirts put it: “If the goal is to make it to state, then the season is over. – Coach Millbrooke.”

Got it.

We are in hard times here in Sweet Home and, as a community, the resolve expressed on those T-shirts is something our community needs to maintain as the economic difficulties continue to take their toll on our schools and on programs that help local kids be successful.

Our newspaper has frequently noted the importance of sports, the arts, forestry, shop classes, clubs and other activities that teach local youngsters important life lessons such as responsibility, drive, achievement, practical skills, and give them the opportunity to develop their bodies and minds in a productive way.

Too many of these kids go home to families in which they get little or no incentive or encouragement to better themselves, where they lack examples of productivity and achievement, where education is not valued, where unhealthy lifestyles prevail.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying coaches and teachers and sports should supercede families. But the reality is that when there is not much at home, these are ways of filling the gaps to some extent, often in a positive way.

That’s why I’m convinced these activities have more value here than in any community I have ever lived in. Sports, arts, clubs and practical, positive activities have made a difference and will continue to do so because there are committed people like Bruce West who resolve to make a difference.

It’s going to get harder with the budget situation. Cuts are coming and it is up to the community to figure out ways to keep providing opportunities for kids to learn in these ways.

It will take that resolve on the part of more than just one or two people to keep this going and it’s important that it keep going – particularly now.

I never knew Bruce West when he was a trainer, but someone told me that he had his own slogan on the wall. I’m repeating it third-hand here, so I might be slightly off, but I know I have the gist right:

“If you only work on days you feel good, you’ll never accomplish anything.”

There are reasons not to feel good right now, but that’s even more reason to run through the wall for Bruce.