Let's hope cutbacks don't spoil sports experience for kids

March 4, 2011 

Reading last week about the Beaufort County Board of Education's decision to trim the budget for athletics grabbed my attention as if I just got fired.

Playing and coaching high school and college football provided this ol' coach with a blessed life, and I'm afraid financial changes could have a negative impact on sports, which could affect young men and women who truly deserve well-financed sports to be competitive and to build positive academic futures.

Reading that coaches might have to take pay cuts hurt my feelings because of the impressive football coaches I know well in the county.

I hope even with a slight pay cut, Beaufort High School's Mark Clifford, Hilton Head High's Tim Singleton, and Whale Branch High School's Rob D'Amato stay committed and dedicated to their football programs and to the kids who need their coaching to be successful on and off the field.

When I was coaching in college, the test I often used to evaluate a high school coach was whether I would like them to coach my sons. My sons are grown now, but I can definitely say I would love for Clifford, Singleton or D'Amato to coach my grandson.

My heart and mind first realized the importance of a football coach in 1958, when I was a junior at Paterson (N.J.) Central High School. My coach was Aubrey Lewis, who was one of the first African-Americans to play at Notre Dame and for one season was the captain of the Fighting Irish, as well as an All-America track athlete. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but a chronic ankle injury that surgery couldn't repair ended his football career and he took an English teaching and head coaching job at my high school.

That was a lucky break for me.

To this day, Coach Lewis is the most important coach in my life, and I know Clifford, Singleton and D'Amato have positive impacts on many of their players. Having been involved in all of their practices, I know their practices are as well organized as the ones I recall with Coach Lewis.

Thankfully, Coach Lewis' greatest impact on me wasn't only during practices or during games, which helped me earn a scholarship. In fact, his most critical impact on my life occurred during the third week of my junior year. One day between classes, he approached me in the hallway, put his arm on my shoulder and gently said, "Larry, you're a good athlete, but, Larry, you need to stop being a jerk."

I was shocked and asked why. He said he had talked to two of my teachers who said I talked too much in class, asked to go to the bathroom too many times, was late for class a few times, and hadn't handed in assignments a few times. Then he explained why it would hurt my football future, because I might not be academically eligible for a scholarship.

After several of his heart to heart talks, I made big changes in my school life and worked as hard in the classrooms as I did on the field. And to this day I still have a regret, because he wanted me to go to Notre Dame but I didn't qualify academically. Thankfully I qualified for a scholarship to Wichita State because of his impact on Larry the Jerk.

To this day, I regret I didn't take the opportunity during my college playing and coaching years to thank Coach Lewis for helping me create a wonderful life. Unfortunately, he died in 2001 and I never could thank him properly. That still hurts my feelings often.

I hope every coach in the county, regardless of sport and gender, has a similar impact on many of their athletes, and I hope the district's budget cuts don't change that fact.

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