Not yet a year old, and Ginger proved herself an expert manipulator – screaming every time mom turned her attention to the older siblings.
"Shhh!!!" Victoria held a finger over her lips, addressing the baby. Ginger giggled and added more food to the smear around her mouth.
"Mommy, but I don't want to go to school today," Phillip groaned.
"Me neither," Roxy, Phillip's twin sister, agreed.
Victoria gathered a breath, straightened their backpacks, and then knelt to their level.
"Hey, look at me. Mommy loves you both – so much! Now, listen. You two watch out for each other today – you're first-graders, and that means a whole new set of challenges."
Roxy asked with a pouty face, "Will there be recess?"
Victoria smiled and reassured them both, "Yes, of course. Now, we've got to hurry, or we'll miss the bus."
Ginger rode on her mommy's hip as they pushed back through the door. Victoria trapped the phone between her shoulder and ear.
"Yes, Ron, I'll be there today. Who is this guy again?"
"His name is Ben Roberts," Victoria's editor, Ron McCormick reminded. "They guy's a coaching legend. Get this - he's the all-time leader in wins for high school coaches in the country."
Victoria herded toys with a foot and corralled them in the corner of her new apartment. She switched Ginger to the opposite hip and rearranged the phone.
"Okay, but tell me again why we're doing this?"
"Well, his granddaughter reached out to us – said he wanted to share his wisdom to help the coaching community. It's a perfect piece for our publication."
"And you say he's old, right?"
"Ron," Victoria started to protest the assignment.
The editor intervened, "Yes, I know, I know, but I really do think he might be able to share something valuable. Besides, you're the perfect person for this assignment."
"Why, Ron? Because I played softball in high school? Please don't patronize me. I said I'd do it – just call me skeptical that there'll be enough for a story. Besides, you know I'm terrible with old people."
Victoria checked-in at the front desk and received a warning from the desk nurse.
"Coach ain't the easiest. Most days he don't talk at all. I'm going to wish you luck because, sister, you're gonna need it."
Victoria thanked the nurse with a flat smile and settled into a chair at a small round table.
When the attending nurse wheeled in her subject, Victoria stood to greet him and formed some initial impressions.
Ben Roberts looked small like a child, and his downcast eyes appeared hidden beneath bushy brows. He wore a neat shirt and a blue softball visor, tilted to the right.
The attending nurse fixed his chair across from Victoria, bridged an introduction, and then winked as she departed the room.
Victoria scribbled a date on the page in the upper corner of her notebook.
She asked, "Mr. Roberts, can we start by having you just state your full name, where you coached, and for how long?"
The old man gazed downward, and after a few moments, he replied, "Call me, coach." Then shared an observation, "You must've been a catcher," he said and peered at her beneath heavy eyelids.
"How did you know?"
Roberts lifted a finger and explained in a soft voice, "Only a catcher can be so direct… No fluff… You cut to the chase."
Victoria smiled and leaned against her chairback. "Okay, Coach, where should we start?"
Victoria sped away from the rest home and called Ron.
"I didn't get much," she complained. "Roberts didn't answer a single question."
"What do you mean?"
"He deflected the conversation back to me. I'm telling you, Ron – this isn't going to work."
"You've got six more meetings to see that it does – it has to work."
Victoria sighed. "Listen, I'm not sure all the bats are in the rack if you know what I mean."
"Find a way, Victoria."
"Ron, I'm trying to juggle three kids, deal with the fact my husband decided some teeny-bopper at the gym was the answer to his mid-life crisis, and now you've dropped this on me. You could've given this to Trish or Max."
"I'm sorry, but you're perfect for this."
Victoria ended the connection and tossed the phone onto the passenger seat.
The next four meetings mirrored the first, and Victoria thought about canceling the sixth. But despite her inclinations, she decided to honor the assignment with only two sessions to go.
During this meeting, the next-to-last, Coach Roberts shared a thought.
"You were a team captain," he said.
Victoria leaned forward and asked, "Why would you say that?"
Roberts gazed at the floor, and Victoria waited for an answer.
"Leadership," he eventually replied.
After several minutes of silence, she folded her notebook closed.
"Coach, I'm not sure we need to meet again. I'm the one who's supposed to be learning about you."
Roberts didn't move, nor did he speak.
Victoria motioned for the nurse to indicate she was ready to leave.
As the attending nurse arrived and began to wheel Ben Roberts away, he raised a finger, and the nurse leaned in as he whispered.
The nurse smiled and pivoted to Victoria. "He says he'll have an answer for you tomorrow."
Victoria's phone buzzed as she raced to her car.
"Ron, I can't talk right now – I'm running late to get the twins."
"Fair enough. I was just checking to see how it went today with Ben."
"Same story – different day."
"Well, you've got one more chance."
Victoria switched the phone over to Bluetooth.
"Listen, Ron - there's not a story here. I tried telling you that from the start."
"There has to be," he insisted.
"How? The man is barely breathing. I'm telling you – he knows more about me than I know about him."
"So, he's still not answered any questions?"
"No! Instead, he asks questions of me – then, he just sits there and stares at the floor. I don't know if he's alive or dead most of the time."
"Are you answering his questions?"
"Yes, and then I turn the conversation back to him, and I get nothing in return. It's been the worst assignment you've ever given me, Ron. And that's saying a lot."
"What's he asking you?"
Victoria took an exaggerated breath and blew it out.
"Day one he asked me if I was a catcher. The next time he asked me how I managed as a single mother. The third time, he wanted to know how I made ends meet on a budget. The fourth was something about how I dealt with being lonely. The fifth time we met, he asked me about courage. And today, he said something about me being a team captain."
"A team captain? Yes, my senior season."
Ron chuckled and said, "Who knows what he'll ask next."
"Right? He did have the nurse tell me he had an answer for me tomorrow."
"To what question?"
"On the first day, I asked him to explain the importance of sports for young people."
The old man's shoulders pinched forward with his hands folded together flat atop his lap. A wooly blanket covered a pair of legs that no longer worked, and atop his head remained the off-center blue visor.
Victoria opened her notebook and scribbled the date in the upper corner of the page.
"Mr. Roberts," she started before he grunted to interrupt.
"Coach," he reminded her with a depth of seriousness that indicated a deep pride associated with the title.
"Okay, coach," she started again and forced a smile. "This is our last meeting."
Ben Roberts nodded and rubbed a wrinkled hand across his tired brow.
He mumbled something inaudible.
Victoria took a deep breath and probed for an answer.
"During our first meeting, I posed a question to you. You dedicated your life to coaching. Can you explain the importance of sports for young people?"
Coach Roberts held a droopy gaze at Victoria's feet, and she watched and waited for his response.
After a few silent minutes, Victoria closed her eyes, and the pressure of the assignment teamed with the avalanche of personal setbacks started to get to her. Tears formed at the edges of her eyes and spilled onto her cheeks.
When she looked up, she found Coach Roberts staring at her, and he began to speak.
"Young people should play sports for situations like yours," he stated.
Victoria wiped the tears with the back of her hand and apologized for the scene.
Coach Roberts dismissed her apology with the slow wave of his hand.
"Sports teaches you that not every moment in life is a win."
Victoria smiled and nodded her head as she recorded his words in her notebook.
Roberts held his finger to accentuate another point. "Sports provides the necessary tools to handle the losses."
Victoria listened and waited for more as Roberts continued to hold his finger high.
When he continued, he said, "Sports teach us all to be teammates, leaders, adjustors, flexible thinkers, doers, rule-followers, rule-makers, role-models, competitors, and most importantly, the courage and intellect to overcome adverse circumstances."
The tears rolled from Victoria's cheeks and blotted her notebook. Coach Roberts nailed it.
His words spoke directly to her situation, yet, could his wisdom could be applied to anyone facing a challenge.
"Coach, thank you," she said with a crying smile.
Coach Roberts relaxed his finger, and once again, his gaze fell upon the floor.
The attending nurse shuffled to his side and whispered into his ear. She then turned to Victoria and said, "I think he's done. Did you get enough for the story?"
Victoria straightened and squeezed the tears from her eyes. "Yes, thank you. More than enough."
Two weeks later, Victoria returned to the rest home with a copy of the magazine, featuring Coach Roberts on the cover.
She checked-in at the desk.
The desk nurse informed, "I'm sorry, dear, but Coach Roberts is no longer with us."
Victoria's shoulders slumped, and she pursed her lips.
"Let me go get someone to talk with you," the desk nurse said and asked Victoria to wait in the room with the small round table.
Victoria stood when a familiar face entered the room. The nurse who attended to Coach Roberts on each visit greeted Victoria with a hug.
"He passed?" Victoria asked.
The nurse held a vacant smile and replied, "Yes, Papa is once again with Mammy."
Victoria pressed her brows downward. "Wait, he was your grandfather?"
The nurse smiled, and tearfully nodded.
She then handed a folded note to Victoria. "He wanted you to have this," she said.
The two exchanged goodbyes and hugged.
Victoria left the building and sat in her car with the note in hand. She unfolded it and began to read.
I knew you were a catcher by the way you took charge. All good catchers do that. That’s what you’re doing now for your situation. Your kids will benefit from your strong leadership. I understand life right now feels like a long losing streak, but if you stay the course, believe in yourself and in the help of others, you will win again. Your history should give you confidence in that. You’ve been challenged before and you’ve met those challenges with courage, intellect, and resolve. And while right now you find yourself down on the scoreboard in the biggest game of your life, you’re still in the game. Never forget that. So long as there’s another pitch to be made, you’ve still got a chance to knock it out of the park. Keep competing, Victoria – encourage those around you to do the same, and no matter what life throws at you, don’t give up - don't you ever give up.
Jerrad Hardin is an award-winning coach and best-selling author. To learn more about Jerrad, please visit: www.jerradhardin.com
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