He was Coach.
That summer I continued to push myself into an envelope of sweat and grind. When I formally met Coach (at a cross country picnic in the park that will forever be branded "the woods between the worlds" in the ardor of my poetic psyche) his hand extended in my direction like a military salute. Thin-lipped and sincere. A man of his word and stature, he welcomed me into the cadre of athletes sporting crew cuts and knee-length shorts. There was all-state swimmer and ripped abdomen Joe Lontelli. There was straw-headed lanky strut of Hans Peacock, Gabino Andretti, his Spanish hair matted back a la pompadour sans the resurgence of a scarlet cape or bull as we kicked it before practice in his pimped out ghetto-crafted late seventies Buick, the front of which was rigged so that the hood would nod in thumped syncopation with the massive sub-woofers potted in the trunk. Together we kicked it, blaring the street soliloquies of House of Pain and Cypress Hill, waiting for our fellow teammates to arrive in the copper-haze of dawn when the athletes would form a circle of bodies and perform rote calve and thigh stretches, massaging out the aches and swells of our legs before breaking out into a lithe cantor and then strutting our limbs into a working steady pace, our heads bobbing with sweat and motion like human-sized pistons as we scaled the perimeter of Madison golf course.
There was demure-eyed Jose Martinez, the needled hair Mexican senior captain on the varsity squad whose countenance availed a gentle smile and reassuring nod at the fledgling underclassman pushing themselves through the swelter of a mid-august fifteen K, where Coach Ricca could oft be found running stride per stride with the leaders of our corporeal train of accelerating hoofs and akimbo limbs, glancing down in to the whiteness of his wrist feeding us our mile split, offering insight into the posture of our arms, correcting the rhythmic intonation of our breath, telling us when to conserve our energy and when to kick deep, mining the dregs of tenacity and endurance left inside of your flesh, as both your upper and lower apparatus spume into a windmill accelerating yourself over the wet morning dew of the earth, in search of nothing short of a finish line and a few deep swallowed breaths of stilted air thereafter.
More than any other high school sport, cross-country focuses acutely both on the individual's sole performance as well as the performance of the team overall. Untanned limbs of flesh lined up across the white hyphen of the starting line like a sentence of bodies about ready disarm it’s formation of meaning, splitting into a sprint of individual shaped letters at the sound of the starting gun. The better the performance of the higher ranking of the team, yet of the eight man varsity squad, if one runner has a bad race or is lagging behind, the team as a functioning unit suffers a deduction in points.
Half my lifetime ago, in the late July, early august sweltering heat of 1992, cross country was my whole life. I sat on the oak canvas of what would two years later serve as the desk where I would compose my first poems looking out the white square of my bedroom window absorbed by the aching shades of copper dwindling into light lavender sprinkled with autumn dusk, contemplating my future, contemplating what lay ahead, listening to the Cure's WISH (wishing impossible things), reflecting on the interior wetness a first kiss yields on the anatomy of an adolescence when your body bends behind the tinty shells of your eyelids as you experience the awkward cut opening of your mouth in hers--if only for a filched second of eternity.
The lazy-eye river town where I have exhaled the bulk of my existence is called Peoria; the genital wart of the Midwest--a discourse in paralysis; a hushed lipped boot-legging hymn to working class stagnation and wizened wished-for dreams. The high school where I attended was less of a melting pot and more of a multicultural mold-inflicted burrito--a few french fries short of an academic happy meal. My sophomore year Manual high boasted the lowest I-SAT scores in the state and the highest teen-age pregnancy rate in the nation. By my senior year they had a "Bring yer kid to school day." No shit.
Looking back fifteen years ago, I realize that the disintegration of our team was spawned by social gravity (thinking of the bleach blond uppity twats from Richwoods high, on the opulent north side of town). That a kid, an athlete, a loner, a drifter, a fucking dreamer, functions differently, sprouts differently, develops differently, grows differently depending on the social-soil from which his seed of individuality has been planted.
I remember Gabino's 14 year old girlfriend coming to me freshman year telling me that she and her boy friend had just broken up and she was three months pregnant and didn't know what to do. There was gang activity, fights in the hallway, manipulation of grades for athletes who played more recognizable sports such as football or basketball. there was our corpulent principal's bobble-headed nod that Manual was the best kept secret in the state and that everything was fine.
There was watching Hans Peacock get booted from the team for attending a local protest. The sad sighting of Jose, the former captain, in early February, overweight and with dreadlocks, dropping out of school, informing me that his high school girlfriend was pregnant and that he was working full time shit jobs to support her.
Coach Ricca never lost his equipoise, his expectations, his resilience or his underlying adamant belief in his students that they could make something of themselves. His belief in his athletes to overcome, to achieve, to give what they could of their bodies, both mentally and physically of themselves for the body of the team, for the colors of the Institution they represented.
There was my own inner demons and foibles flooded with typical teen angst riddled attention salivating late-night masochism. The interior of my rattled nervous system was coursing with more anti-depressant pills than the mawkish-eyed audience at a Morrissey convert. There was introspection and solipsism and the salty taste of tears skiing down the contours of your face at night, wondering if perhaps, the experiment of my adolescence and of my life was botched from the outset and that I had somehow failed.
(Too many kids deal with this shit, and where do they go, when they are naked and drunk and can't find someone to hold them?)
In running too, I felt like a failure. Despite achieving respectable times, I slogged through Freshman year on a stress fracture inflicted on my right leg. Sophomore year the bone-fissure appeared on opposite left leg. A year later I bowed out of the thrice a day routine work-outs hoping that lighter workouts would mean less injuries. I completed the season without the season breach in my femur but sadly my times remained stagnant, unchanged. The inability to watch my dreams of being an accomplished long-distance athlete timely actuate themselves during the static discourse of those four post-pubescent emotionally addled years of high school, where so my individual development somehow gestates, creating the present day creature you become.
There was my father not knowing what to do with his beret-wearing clove cigarette dangling son, a copy of ON the Road or LEAVES OF GRASS perennially tucked under the pit of my arm like a fallen army flag cosigning parental defeat.
Gradually the realization that I wouldn't get any faster. Gradually the realization that running would not be in my future and that I had failed. By senior year, despite coach Ricca's one-on-one's and his encouragement, his stops at the house to talk to me and his unflinching belief that if I chose so, this would be my year, despite the fact that it would be my third year in a row of being captain of the Varsity squad, I didn't even go out for the team.
My career and dreams of becoming an athlete had completely calloused my ability that I would ever make anything of myself. Sporadically I started scraping up the white sand of the page at night with little inky-tears, hoping that maybe, through scribbling and shoveling around the dunes of my emotional mitigating self-worth viable human archeology, I would unearth just what was inside of me and somehow (hopefully) understand the perpetual pain and joys of the ever pulsating world around me.
It's been about 13 years and every time I pick up that shovel and start scribbling out what's left inside of me, I'm astounded as fuck by what (and more imperatively who) I find deeply stowed beneath the porcelain flesh of the page.
My late father taught me a lot about sports. In baseball he taught me never to strike out without first swinging the bat as hard as I fucking could. To never "strike out looking." In running ( and in life) he taught me to always cross the finish line with my head down as if in prayer and with my body astride in full sprint. Regardless of any sport I would play, regardless if the season was seeped in the caterwaul of glory or dotted in a string of agony and ill-timed losses my father vehemently insisted that after the last game of every season--after the final strike was called and the last time out transpired, Dad would tell me to simply go up to the coach, extend my paw and thank him for his time and mentorship.
My cross country career was punctuated in cowardice. I never thanked Coach for the hours we spent together, a galloping rehearsal of my pending road race through the sometimes lonely cross-country hills and arduous up-hill mile-splits of life. I never thanked him for the constant reassurances and gruff chin nods and attaboys. The shrill of the bell senior year was accompanied by interior psychiatric drug-hazed musings on how I might reach the next classroom without skirting past coach Ricca in the hallway.
Well Mr. Ricca, it's been well over a decade but here's me stretching out my appreciative palm teeming with nothing short of life changing gratitude and thanks in your direction.
(the future author--far right in towl, gleaning some last second insight
from his Coach. circa autumn 1993)
Thank you. Coach.