In the ninth grade, I was cut from the basketball team at Broadneck High School. At 14 years old, rejection is a tragedy. But as I sat and cried in the living room – not because I knew I wasn’t Broadneck basketball material, but because I was told I wasn’t good enough to make the team – I knew there was another path out there. It led straight to the school’s outdoor athletic complex.
Monday afternoon, I joined the indoor track team. And at my first track practice, I was brusquely greeted by Bruce Villwock, who led the 40 freshmen through stretching and warmups. He barked orders. He yelled at kids who goofed around. He told us that the 15 minutes we spent stretching and warming up would make us healthier and stronger.
I was terrified. Out of those 40 freshmen, only a handful of us became four-year letter winners in track. Little did I know how much Bruce Villwock would make an impression on me in that time.
As a shot putter, you don’t have much interaction with the runners and jumpers on the track team. You’re isolated in a corner of the track. So it was us and Coach Villwock on those cold afternoons. Three of us were serious about the art of putting the shot, and while the others didn’t, Coach Villwock still took the time to work with them. He could have easily written them off as slackers, but that wasn’t in his nature. Little did I realize that underneath that gruff exterior – part and parcel of years as a football and boys lacrosse coach – he was also an empathetic person, that this was his way of teaching someone who wasn’t as talented or as athletic that they had a value and a passion and that what they learned, somehow, would make them a better individual.
As I prepared for a meet one day, heaving that 8-pound lead shot ahead of me, Coach Villwock called Jerry Kiple, the head track coach and distance coach, over to our corner of the football complex. Coach Villwock pointed at me and declared that in four years, I would throw at the Maryland state indoor track championships. I kind of shrugged, grinned, and said something along the lines of, “yeah right.” But the bug was in my head. And for the next four years, I made it a point to get good grades, to train, to listen to what my coaches and teachers told me and to stay out of trouble because I had this goal in front of me.
My final indoor track meet was the Maryland state 3A championships, where I finished third. I remember two people watching me compete: my father and Coach Villwock.
I read in my hometown paper today that Coach Villwock is retiring after 37 years of teaching. Coach Villwock said something that is reflective of the values of his era of teaching and parenting – one that was in my household, as well, as my parents were teachers:
“The number one reason for my success would be that I put the students first, regardless of whether I was teaching or coaching them. I tried to instill in them the things I instilled in me by my parents.
“The kids come to me and I tell them that they’re special and that they have a gift to give to the world, as I’m trying to encourage them and build their self-esteem.”
It sounds frilly, but Coach Villwock had this no-bullshit way of trying to find what was great about each of his students and that life wasn’t a competition but a chance for each of us to cultivate and share our own greatness, whatever it was, and not to worry what other people think.
I still have my medal from the state championships, and the first-place ribbon I won for the regional championship. When I wonder what my purpose is, or why I am staying up late to research my next story, I think about that medal and those ribbons. They are reminders of all the hard work and training I put in for four years to achieve the goal that was set for me and the goals I set for myself. What I reaped, I sowed.
When I read that Coach Villwock is retiring, I didn’t realize how emotional I would get over it. I took down my medal from the state championships and looked at it for a while, and told my husband this:
When I was 14, I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself. I don’t think a lot of people outside of my family had faith in me. But like he did for so many of his students, Bruce Villwock put faith in me. It was one of the best things a teacher ever did for me.