My high school football coach died this week. He was 91 and his health had been in decline for a while. If you’ve followed this column, you know my story and the influence he had on my life.
His name was Bert “Chig” Ratledge. I suppose the “Chig” was short for Chigger and a reference to his small stature. He was and always will be Coach Ratledge to me. I could never ever refer to him by that nickname.
I’m not going to rehash the story about how important he was to me. I do want to make it clear that the man I’ve become and the career that I’ve had is due in no small part to the fact that he believed in me. He believed I could be whatever I wanted to be and through football, proved it to me.
I know for a fact that he had the same impact on a lot of people. I was there for his 89th birthday party, a small affair for a few of his stars and a few of his favorites. I was there for his 90th birthday party too, where his daughter Jan opened it up to the whole community. There was a crowd.
That was the last time I saw him and he still commanded the room. At 90, he remembered everybody there and something about them. His wrecked spine forced him to stay completely bent forward at the waist, but he was still sharp and a giant among men.
His heart was immense. Condolences this week to his daughter were full of praise and adoration for what he had meant to so many. He was a football genius, implementing things like the veer offense and split tackle defense when only the colleges were doing so.
Don’t get me wrong, he could be intimidating. He rarely yelled — a look was all it would take. But he got everything out of his young charges. Even as an adult, if he told me to run through a brick wall, I would try it.
Let me get to the real point of today’s column. Teachers, Scout leaders, coaches, adults everywhere you have no idea how important your words can be to some young person. Good and bad, everything you say can be hugely impactful.
I’ve talked about the episode before where a friend and I were dropping popcorn onto bouffant hairdos below us at a basketball game. I couldn’t have been more than 8. This young mother told her young son, “Please don’t grow up to be like them.” What was that? 58 years ago? I remember it like it was yesterday.
Your words can harm. “People like you don’t go to college.” I’m still resentful of that after all these years. I wish I could let it go but I can’t. I will say that it has driven me to achieve beyond my (and their) wildest dreams.
“He can be a good one if he works at it.” Coach Ratledge’s words changed me forever. Oh, I work at it. Man, do I ever work at it. I want to prove Coach Ratledge right. No problem is insurmountable if you’re willing to work hard enough.
Your words can be so powerful, not when you’re trying to pontificate or be profound, but more likely when you are just being honest and supportive. Or maybe it is an offhand remark and you didn’t realize who was listening. It has more to do with the circumstances and the listener.
But whatever you do, please choose your words wisely and carefully. You never know who is listening. And you never know whose life you are changing. Goodbye, Coach Ratledge. Thank you.