Sunday, July 01, 2007

Requiem for Coach Ricca (pt 1)

There is perhaps no greater monosyllabic word in the English language connoting such solemn respect and veneration among the heterosexual north American ESPN-sports saturated cheap domestic beer beast renown throughout the planet as the male species than that of the word Coach. You can feel the towering respect such a word carries with it as you bite down into the side of your cheeks prior to its pronunciation, your lips forming what looks like triangular offense as your tongue lunges stagnant near the sky dome of your mouth, a raw breeze of sound kicking it's way out from the locker room of your lips, like a homecoming football team locomoting it's way on to the field, the final "ch" sound mirroring the foaming chant of a highschool stadium Friday nights in late autumn under stalks of stadium light and a brisk dip in the temperature.


The sideline silhouette. The clipboard. The stop watch. The whistle. The stoic-chinned countenance demanding both respect and results. The flashed look of seriousness or disappointment expressed from the distance of the court or field. The spewed mantras of seasonal performance expectations and self-goals. The one individual whose status will marshal your talent, fledged your attributes into accolades and sweat the living sin out from your brow. The one individual who will coerce your anatomy into pushing itself past the mental hurdle of what you thought was possible.

The Vince Lombardi's. The Coach K's. The no-non-shit antics of Scott Skiles (I have a photo of Scott Skiles scowling at me from above the metaphysical bleachers of my writing desk; the words NO-SICK DAYS NO NON-SHIT....GET TO WORK BOY!!! etched above.)

The thick lipped Charlies Wies' and implacable Bobby Knights.

The one individual who will create you. The individual who will immortalize you. The individual who will lead you to glory and weld you into the man of character you were destined to somehow become.

The one who will lead you into the sun.


The first half of my life I was an athlete. I ran seventy miles a week, my coltish limbs kicking a blurred cycle of motion beneath my torso as both my arms formed tight right angles gliding into a steady sprint, coursing the curtain call of my puberty and early-adolescence in a weighted series of quickly snapped footsteps and exhaled pants as I jetted across the topography of my youth in a steady gallop of limbs and arms skiing past the grandiose thick eye-lash windexed houses of Moss Avenue, residue from a bootleg era, sprinting around the coiffed perimeter of Madison golf course careful to avoid the lumbering silhouettes of late-middle aged golfers lugging their stalks of clubs like a fresh kill. I ran circles around the affluent timed sprinkler lawns of West Peoria, each street guarded with a sentinel of mini-vans and the chiropractic spines of basketball hoops. I ran through the gangsta-graffiti'd flotsam and jetsam of the south side, unaware that the thirty seconds it took to dip down the hilly gravel slope of either Western or Ligonier served as a sociological fissure, an arbiter of class and status discerning if you would make it in this world or if not. I ran through the leafy foliage of Bradley park, the golden timeless leaves in autumn breezing behind the back heel of my stride in a flurry of wisped crunches, across the Chinese bridge, the cratered amphitheater barren of it's summer stock tent come the genesis of fall, when high-school students don jerseys and flimsy shorts and cleats after class and take to the hard soil of the earth, a herd of athletes all running cross-country, all roving their feet over the scalp of the planet, accumulating the velocity to push harder, to run faster to quash the blinking hyphenated digits of the clock at the finish line: to pour out simply what is inside of you and find out what is left.

And then pour that out too in a draught of sacrifice and sweat.

My father ran for leisure, noncompetively. He ran everyday after standing in front of fourth graders. He boasted a waddle to his run and always ran with a demure smile sketched into his face. When I was real young I would run with my father. I remember my father pretending to have invisible buttons on the top of his curved fist he would press, making jet engine thruster sounds, claiming that they were accelerators and could make him run faster near the end of the finish line. One of the joys of my dad (as my sister Jenn pointed out in his eulogy) was that, near the end of the finish line when we were young and he would run with us, he would always let his young kids take the lead and finish ahead of him.

An emotional memory for me was dad, telling his eight year old son during the half-way point turn around of their four mile route was that, "Every step after this gets you a little bit closer to home, son. Just a little bit closer to home."

Running was deeply seeped in the blood type of our family genes. Our summer weekends were monopolized chartering the family station wagon wending our way through the arteries of Illinois highways hitting up a variety of mid-summer festival road races peppered across the state, accompanied usually with my Aunt and Uncle and their four slim tanned daughters--all boobless and lanky and all runners. My Uncle ran marathons and was a beast in local 5k's. I can remember running my first four mile race when I was in second grade. By the time I was ten I could run a six minute mile. By the time I graduated from eighth grade I was on the verge of breaking the junior high elusive five minute mile and was the second fastest miler in the state for my age.

I played baseball and Tennis during the summer. Laced up cleats and swatted around a soccer ball employing only the symmetry of the lower portion of my body in the spring and fall. Stayed late after school and worked on draining my free throws in the winter. But it was running where I had my gift. It would be the twin stems of my legs that would ferry me into the future as an athlete. The bone and tissue and muscle of my interior leg and thighs served as my promising rod and staff into a heralding future of promise. The crack of my ankles in the early morning--the rote machinery of my torso, the lapsed rhythm of my breath, the feeling of sweat trickling down my brow--the feeling of pushing yourself past a interior-manacled barrier of what you thought was impossible.


I met Coach Ricca the summer of 1992, exactly half my lifetime ago. I had just graduated from eighth grade. My individual mile time averaged out near the low five minute single digit area code. I ran three times a day. A three mile skid in the morning. A vigorous hill workout under the hammer of midday sun at noon. And a pleasant 4-6 mile trod at night. I kept tallies of my daily workout evaluations, performed squats and dips in my bedroom to the music of Guns-n-roses and Nirvana, plastered note cards heralding never give up maxims all over my bedroom wall. I can still remember how the earth felt that summer and spring. Can still remember the grainy taste of caffeine splashed inside my lips, trying to be more adult and not scowl at the then revolting taste. I remember the the cool melody of the sky at 5:30 in the morning when pastel shades of light pink drip into a morning haze of copper in the east when street lamps fizzle into a pre-dawn hush as I kicked my way into the future scaling the latitude and longitude of the city that had reared me for the first decade and a half of my life. It was the summer of the '92 Barcelona Olympics. I pushed myself harder. Poetically plotted how I would seduce fellow precocious Olympian Kim Zmeskal (it was hard to write a poem that rhymes with her last name). I mapped out a trajectory of personal goals set for myself over the next four years; how I would be damned if I wasn't a world class athlete. If I wasn't employing the calcium of my bones to their optimal capacity I simply did not wish to be.

At night I capitulated to the caps of both my knees, the dual bony knobs functioning as joints for the plants of my legs; the vessels that would ferry me in my quest for glory. I prayed with the fervor of saints angels that my own biased waspish variation of a God would assist the fuck out of me.

It was that summer I met Coach Ricca.

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