We ran. And ran. In the filthy heat of late August, through the slightly cooler September, and the thankfully cooler October. We ran. The kind of running that leads you to think your lungs are going to explode, accompanied by the kind of sweat that continues pouring from your body for seemingly the rest of the day, regardless of how long you laid under the air conditioning vent or how cold a shower you take. The stink of sweaty grass seemed to occupy my nostrils permanently through these months.
It was basketball conditioning, but we never touched a ball in these months. We were a run and jump team, pressing and trapping the majority of the time we played, and it was understood we had to be well conditioned. But criminy, that heat. We would start with some sort of excruciating ab workout on the field, (hence, the stench of grass). Plyos followed, and we were asked to contort our bodies in ways that were awkward, and challenging, the opposite of graceful. Yet we complied willingly, trusting the process wholeheartedly. Then, we would run. Jogs. Sprints. Timed runs. Change of directions. Intervals. Relays. More jogs, more sprints. Countless cones.
I played for a throwback coach, old school enough that he coached football in the fall, so we worked under our varsity assistant coach, who also happened to be the track coach (Coaches coaching multiple sports always reminds me of Wooden’s early days, for some reason, when he coached HS football, baseball and basketball, a far cry from the high level of specialization found today).
He had trained for the Olympics. Legend held he missed qualifying by six inches. He was mid to late 20’s, tall, and it was obvious to all he was an ex-athlete, which lent itself to immediate credibility. He was tan, always clad in the sort of sunglasses only baseball players and runners wear. And, always, his head was covered in a large brimmed staw hat, complete with drawstring that ran underneath his chin, the sort of hat whose industry must be entirely financed by track coaches and aspiring track coaches.
His name was Coach Gilmore, and we loved him. He had an infectious energy and zest for life, such that most teenagers (including myself) didn’t know how to deal with him at first. His voice was deep, and booming was an understatement. It echoed across gymnasiums and fields, his words seeming to hang longer than they should. In the chaos of a basketball game, in a packed gym, you never failed to hear Coach Gilmore’s instructions, which usually were repeating something our Head Coach had said, simply at a higher volume and seemingly more reverberation, always with more enthusiasm.
Gilmore saved our lives. Literally, he saved our lives. We were a small, Christian school, competing against all small, rural high schools. We came from a different demographic, and we weren’t exactly sensitive. It didn’t help that we were pretty good, and we knew it. We played with an edge, and swagger that bordered on punkishness. We had stuff thrown at our bus and the windows broken out multiple times. At one such game, with seemingly the whole town in attendance, we got our butts handed to us. We got smacked. Nothing went in the hoop, and the other team’s point guard, all 5’3 of him, couldn’t miss. The whole town cheered, chanted and mocked. We lost our composure, with time winding down, and one of our guys took a cheap shot at their PG, a full two handed shove that sent him sprawling. And pandemonium erupted. The crowd was on the floor. Both benches stood. And Curtis, the guy who took the cheap shot, was ready to fight the entire town. As our lives flashed before our eyes, Coach Gilmore flashed his former near-olympian self. He horse collared Curtis, and literally carried him the 100+ feet to the locker room (more impressive, given that Curtis was 6’6 and 250 pounds). And the town, formerly hungry for blood, was appeased (or amazed by Coach Gilmore’s speed) long enough for the game to end, and us to hunker down behind the locked doors of the locker room. If not for Coach Gilmore, I am convinced Curtis would have punched someone that night, and all of us would have fallen victim, dying in some awful rural town at the hands of a violent mob.
We played in a tournament in Boonville. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. The town was so small we stayed in a forest fire station, because the hotel rooms were sold out for the tournament we played in. We got ice cream one night, and the ice cream was named “Oh, fudge.” Coach Gilmore found this humorous. Whenever someone made a mistake the rest of the trip, Gilmore called out “Oh, FUUUUUUDDGE” in loud, booming voice, followed by a contagious cackle. We were playing a game that week, and someone turned the ball over, and the cry of “Oh, FUUUUUDGE” echoed from the bench, in a way that seemed to bounce off every corner of the gym. In the seriousness and competition of athletic play, I am not sure I have ever laughed so hard.
We would encircle Coach Gilmore before getting in the vans on trips. He would stand with his feet planted, and we would try and run and punch him, 1 at a time, and he would move just his arms, with punches that landed before we ever had a chance to make contact. How this game originated I have no idea, but we played it regularly, and with the kind of joy, laughter, and revelry only teammates can share.
Coach Gilmore would randomly bust out the Robot. And he could dance, which always shocked us, since he seemed like the kind of guy who probably trained on Friday nights instead of ever dancing, but he had moves we all legitimately envied.
But he made us run. And run. And run. And during those times, it was a good thing Gilmore had loved us. If not, there is no way any of us would have endured the torturous heat, terrible air, and joylessness of endless sprints. We considered mutiny, but no one could muster any genuine ill will. He was too good of a person.
It was in these early relationships, with Coaches like Gilmore, that a seed was planted within me. I knew I wanted to Coach. And people like Gilmore were why. I wanted to experience the joy of sport beyond what my playing ability would take me. I wanted to model service. I wanted to feel the bonds of brotherhood of which I have not found outside of sport. I wanted to encourage, to push, to motivate, to matter in the hearts and minds of young people.
And so we would run. And run. And Gilmore would yell encouragement, in that big baritone voice, his volume effortlessly covering 100’s of yards. One of his favorite phrases he would call out was “Less of me, more of we”. He saved this for impactful moments, chanting it like a monk, over and over again. “Less of me, more of we”. Someone would slow on a sprint, and the words would ring out. We would breathe harder, legs aching, chest tight, covered in sweat. “Less of me, more of we”.
I am confident everyone of my teammates would recall this as Coach Gilmore’s favorite saying. And they would laugh and smile, and share another story of how Coach Gilmore made them laugh, and mentored, or taught something impactful, or modeled character.
In his favorite saying, Coach Gilmore caught the essence of sport. “Less of me, more of we” defines successful teams. It gives meaning to athletics, the type of lesson that sits, simmers, and emerges years after being absorbed. It also, in many ways, is a defining quality of life, and those who get the most of the human experience, and live the life they were created for, embody “less of me, more of we”. In his favorite phrase, Coach Gilmore chose six words that very much defined what it means to live correctly.
Coach Gilmore now stands in the battle of his life. Diagnosed with cancer several months ago, he fights an uphill battle, far more challenging than any amount of sprints. And his lessons echo on. Countless former students and athletes attest to his character. Many more can share an anecdote of the meaning of his relationship with them. Many pray without him knowing it. For me, as a coach, I can say definitively that Coach Gilmore heavily influenced my decision to lead young people in an athletic endeavor, much because I wanted to be like him. He, and others inspired what we would be my life’s passion. There are many more like me.
Less of me, more of we.