Finding an answer

Sometimes things in life happen and you know instantly why they happened. Sometimes it takes a while and others, well, you never really find out an answer.

Too often, it’s the sad things that you never really get an answer for. But sometimes, they are mixed in with some good.

Let me try and explain…so hang with me.

I coach youth sports. I have for years. Soccer and Basketball. I started almost 10 years ago with my oldest son when he started playing soccer. When my youngest started playing, naturally I coached him and his teams also. Ever since, I’ve been a part of their teams in one form or another. Either as a head coach or an assistant.

I had coached the youngest’s basketball team last year, and I had decided that enough was enough. Time to hang up the whistle. I had a bad experience with a parent the previous season and between that, the increasing competitiveness of the game, wanting my kids to experience other coaches and my general stress level (which has been high of late) I had decided not to coach again this year. I’d finish out the spring soccer season and I’d be done. Blessed retirement. I’d happily sit on the sidelines and watch.

Then the emails started.

The basketball league was asking for someone to coach the team my son would play on. They didn’t have anyone and needed a coach.

I told my wife not to respond. I was done.

The emails kept coming. Eventually with more frequency and with greater urgency.

I stayed strong. I was done and didn’t want the commitment or stress again.

But as the season drew near, the league still didn’t have a coach. They talked about not having the team and refunding the registration fees.

So, after much quiet cajoling by my son (and a few hopeful looks from my wife), I agreed to coach. One. Last. Time.

I was not happy about it to be honest.

After the organizational meeting with the league, I found out they had 13 boys (all 11 years old) signed up. Not enough for two teams, but a “challenge” for one. That’s lot of players in a recreational league where you are supposed to guarantee every player the right to play 50% of the game. Plus if you’ve ever been around 13, 11-year-old boys…wow…like herding loud cats!

As I said, I wan’t too happy about the situation.

But let me tell you something. I’ve never been as glad that I coached a team as I am with this one. This gets into the reason “thing”. I kept asking myself why had I agreed to do this again when I was going to be stressed out about it and worry and so on.

Well, there are three words that I can tell you ARE the answer.

James Richard Helmuth.

I knew James in name only from the previous season. He had played for a different team and mid-way through the season James was diagnosed with a very, very rare form of cancer. He was 10 at the time, and it broke my heart just to hear about it.

James was signed up for my team and I recognized his name on the roster. I met his mom at the organization meeting and she offered to help out with the team. We talked about James and she said he had had surgery to remove the tumors, and had finished up his chemotherapy and was ready to try playing a little. She warned me he was weak and would need to rest a lot.

She was right. When James showed up for the first practice he was thin, pale and weak. I remember it well. He wore a basketball jersey and a Washington Redskins baseball cap (his hair was gone from the chemo).

He did his best, but got tired a lot. We let him take a lot of breaks, and he would always let me know when he was ready to play again. His coordination was gone and it was a struggle for him just to dribble a ball.

As the season progressed, James got stronger. He was able to run up and down the court, his coordination came back and he never, EVER once complained about anything. He was a fighter and he was determined to play despite his body protesting.

He was quite and a little stoic. I can’t imagine his thoughts as he struggled to recover from the previous year he had experienced. However I got occasional glimpses of the ornery glint in his eyes that apparently marked him before he got sick.

During games he and I had an agreement. I’d put him in once in the game to play, and after that he’d let me know when he felt up to playing again.

Some games, it was just that once. Other times he’d find me one the side line and tell me, “Coach, I’m ready to play.” That was my cue to get him into the game again. He’d always say those same words.

“I’m ready to play.”

Four simple words that spoke volumes.

James died two weeks ago.

It came as a shock to us as we had seen him just a week previously at the end-of-the-sean party for the team. He looked pretty good.

We attended a celebration of his life on Saturday and I have to tell you, I’ve never seen so many people at a funeral. It was truly a celebration of a life, albeit one cut far too short.

I’m not going to try and tell you about James and how he lived his 11 years of life. Others who knew him far better should do that. I wouldn’t do him justice.

But I will tell you this. James is the reason I ended up coaching that team. Even though I didn’t know it at the time.

Getting to know James for 4 months was an honor and a privilege and without him knowing, he taught me something.

When you can, in sports as in life, you should always be “ready to play.”

You see James loved sports. It was a central part of his life. To him, sports, and playing sports, WAS being alive. At the service people talked endlessly about his love of anything that had ball. Football, basketball, you name it.

He was happiest when he was playing. It was central to who he was.

So those words, “I’m ready to play”, took on even more meaning.

In the end, I don’t have answers as to why things happened the way they did. Why James got sick. Why him. Why he died when he seemed to be doing better.

But I do have one answer.

I know why something moved me to coach that team.

It was so I could get to meet James and get to know him for a time. Of this I have no doubt.

Those answers are few in life so I’m gong to relish this one, despite the hurt that goes with it.

Thank you James. You taught me something and it was honor to get to know you for a while.

My wish for myself, for my boys, for my wife, and for everyone is this:

As often as possible in this life, may we all be “Ready to Play”.

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