Leaving a Legacy

ADerks Illinois HS Cross Country 4 Comments

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a high school distance coach, which I am learning more and more each year, is the stories we get to tell. While some stories are predictable and play out the way we think they will, some stories come out of nowhere. In fact, it seems more and more like MOST good stories come from unexpected places and are about unexpected people. These stories need to be shared. My colleague and friend, Coach Tony Holler, has helped bring notoriety to storytelling and writing for high school coaches through his many blogs and articles. Chris Quick, the boys coach at Palatine High School, has preached on the importance of telling stories, writing to and about our runners. He took it to a new level and wrote a book, One Way, Uphill Only, which has been read by myself and many runners I coach. Coach Noah Lawrence of Hinsdale Central continues to produce thoughtful, inspiring, and honest narratives in his blog about not only his runners, but himself and his family. The coaching staff at Neuqua Valley (no doubt with the help and expertise of two English teachers on their staff), tell us the stories of their team in meet recaps, none better than their recent recap of the state meet.  

It is hard to find the time to do everything we want to as coaches, but the end of a season brings with it a chance to reflect, and perhaps a little bit more time to write. As I reflect on this past season, and past 4 for our seniors, there are two stories I want to tell. Two stories about young men who I think have stories that can inspire and motivate others.  

Both young men are currently seniors.

One of them, whose story I shared in our PNXC state meet recap, is about a guy who did not run his freshman year, Omar Paramo. It was great to hear Omar speak with confidence and humility at our End of the Season Banquet to an audience of 130 people and share his version of his story.  

The other is a young man who, as a freshman, did run XC. In fact, he was our 41st ranked runner in the fall of 2014 (out of 43 total runners).  

With a little help from the young man himself, here is the story of Ethan O’Keeffe:

It was eight weeks of nonstop running. My legs were giving in just walking up the stairs. Sleep was a necessity but also a rare occurrence, and this routine was turning the life I once loved into a life I hated. I continued to run, but I ran with much distaste and putting in effort felt like an ongoing battle that never came with any benefits. That was just summer training. The cross-country season hadn’t even begun.

It was the summer of 2014. Much like every year when we start summer running, I was paying close attention to our incoming freshman runners. Who had talent? Who had leadership qualities? Who were the hard workers? Who was squirrelly? We had a pair of freshman twins, Ethan and Aaron O’Keeffe. Neither stood out particularly. Little did I know, however, that before one of them would graduate, he would become one of the most influential and respected team members the PNXC team has ever had.  And, he would do this without competing in a single race after his freshman year.

I met the coach during the summer and could tell just by his nature, that he was tough. He had passion for what he did, and that was intimidating because his life was the complete opposite of mine. I had never been good at any sports, but he seemed like a model athlete. Still, up to that point, running was the only activity that had been part of my life since middle school, so the decision to continue running in high school felt like the right choice. The season began, and a pressure built: one that felt as if it never went away, a burden that kept me under a sea of misery. My motivation during practices evaporated, and I felt powerless to change anything. I did not want to run anymore. I considered quitting, but a thick layer of ice challenged me at the surface of the water. How was I going to tell my coach?  

In his first timed 3-mile of the year, Ethan O’Keeffe clocked a 24:25 in a time trial we ran at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve the day after our invitational at Seneca was cancelled.  He progressed throughout the season, eventually running his season PR of 20:16 at the Sterling Invite. At the end of the 2014 season, he ranked 41st on our team our team of 43 runners. The spring track season came and went.  Ethan posted a series of unmemorable races,  mostly 800’s around 2:30-2:40, 1600’s between 5:35-5:45. Sure, there was some potential, but the kid did not seem to have the fire. I assumed he would continue on with our distance crew, steadily improve, but always remain among the runners who contentedly find their place near the back of the pack.  

The night before I was going to quit, my mind raced, my emotions toyed with me, and a battle of uncertainty was raging, but from the midst of all the turmoil, clarity emerged. I was not going to quit. Instead, I was going to shift my role, and change my outlook on the sport that I had seen as a burden up to that point. The following day, I pulled my coach aside during the first practice and requested that he consider me for a different position. To my surprise, he was understanding. After the pressure withdrew from my chest, I asked my coach if I could become the new team manager, and he respectfully granted me my request.

Sometimes in life, you don’t know what you need until you have it. As a young distance coach of a developing, relatively new program, I was trying to do it all: Create a top-notch website, cultivate a thriving team culture, develop a sound training plan, record everything, maintain my own running schedule, do it all. Oh, and do all this while starting a young family with a six-year-old daughter and a newborn baby at home. We had managers in previous years. Solid guys, willing to show up most days, take attendance, hold a stopwatch. However, most likely due to my need to be a control-freak, I was not giving them more tasks to do. I could not keep this pace up, and I knew it.

Enter Ethan O’Keeffe.

That same kid, who was our 41st ranked runner the previous year, approached me on the 2nd day of cross country in 2015.  He no longer had the desire to compete for the PNXC team. He did, however, have the desire to still be a part of the team if he could stay on as a manager.

It seemed like a decent idea, and he was a nice enough kid, so we gave it a shot.

It started off surprisingly difficult and I became uncertain of my choice. My new role on the team came with embarrassment. Why was I there at practice if I wasn’t going to run? This recurring question overwhelmed me, but as time went on, my insecurities led to personal growth, and this position would end up becoming one of the greatest realizations of my life.

He started off with relatively easy tasks- Carry out the bag of foam rollers, take attendance.  Simply showing up everyday was one of the primary jobs, even on days there may not be a lot to do. As our relationship shifted from coach-athlete to coach-manager, I assumed it would be as it had been with others in the past: Give him simple tasks, don’t expect too much, and he would find ways to do the bare minimum. It did not take me long to realize, however, that Ethan was in this for the long haul. Ethan took great pride in his role. He was extremely reliable, mature, and honest.  

Once we got to the first meet, Ethan’s eyes were opened to the challenges presented by his new position- problem-solving ways to get splits at different mile-markers for 20-30 + runners in a single race, getting splits typed up, getting splits posted on a google spreadsheet.  Ethan quickly realized that this was not something he knew how to do. In typical Ethan fashion, what did he do? He simply figured it out. He taught himself how to use google docs. He figured out how to use his smartphone to video races and get accurate splits. He figured out how to efficiently get split sheets typed up and ready to go to make everything go quickly post-race.  

As I began to see our new manager take on all tasks with enthusiasm, I tested the waters of what more he could handle. Enter times in our season results spreadsheet? Check. Teach himself how to use the Steepleweb database and enter over a year’s worth of old results?  Check. Type up and create links for workout results? Check.  

Suddenly, all those tasks I had either neglected, thought about doing, or done when I should have been sleeping or spending time with family, were being done by this go-getter young manager.  

While Ethan was impressing me with his ability to take on new tasks, what really impressed me was his maturity. He quickly became a confidant. He would be honest with me when I would discuss a team issue with him. He learned how to balance being a peer/friend with guys on the team, while also being an authority figure as a team manager.  

I remember at the end of one season, I told Ethan that I felt like we could be doing more to recruit new athletes, that I had slacked in my efforts to get more new guys on the team. His response:  “Yeah, I would agree”.

While this response was simple, it spoke volumes to me. This kid was not afraid to be honest with me and call me out. He was not there just to be told what to do. He cared about the culture of the team. He cared enough about his coach to be honest.

After the first year, we were off and rolling. Ethan was developing efficient systems, knew his role, knew the tasks, and was starting to look for new challenges. This season, he started doing “live splits” at certain meets, creating a live link to post splits, and posting them quickly between races. This allowed alumni and parents who didn’t travel to meets to instantly see how our runners did. Ethan also began posting splits/results on our team groupchat immediately after meets, often on the bus ride home, accompanied with messages like “Here are your times/splits…Make sure to get your log updated tonight”.  

It might sound simple, but this was all his doing. I was not having to constantly hover over him to make sure these things were done. Most of the time, I did not even think about them. Ethan was just doing his thing- finding ways to improve our team and serve others. He took extreme pride in his role, and made it his mission to do everything he could to help our team and his coach.

There was another night where I was at home, and I received a text from Ethan. It  stated: “Hey coach, I was just wondering if there was anything I needed to do for you? I feel like I usually have more to do this time of year, any new projects you need me to help out with?” Wow. You know you have a great manager when you can’t think of anything else for him to do, and he’s still asking for more!

As our  season has wound down, I recently sent Ethan a message about getting all of our All-Time lists updated, our results spreadsheet and database updated, thinking this would need to be done within a week before our End-of the-Season banquet. Usually a task that I do, I was not looking forward to it.  

Ethan’s response to me: “I did that already.”

I replied “All of it??” Ethan: “Yep.”

I work with high school students each day, and see so many young people look for ways to duck responsibility, or look for ways to do less than is expected of them. I see very little “pride” going into the work being done. However, as I sit here now finishing up inventory of our uniforms, warm ups, etc, my job has been made extremely easy because of Ethan. He came in one afternoon, counted everything, folded everything, created a new inventory google doc along with pictures of each uniform piece- making it very easy to track. Once again, all his own doing. Pride. Whether it is making sure every uniform is accounted for, or every last runner gets their 400m time in a cold, rainy, windy workout, I have not met many other young men that take such pride in their job- a job that comes with little-to-no fanfare or recognition.

After some time adjusting to my new role, I grew in appreciation for my position and for the sport. My coach became my mentor, and the more I learned about him, the more I noticed the endless dedication he put in. To keep up with his pace, I became more dedicated to the time commitment and enhanced my communication and problem solving skills with every challenge that arose at practice. When my coach’s second child was born, he leaned on me more than ever before. This sport was more than just a team; it was a family. My thoughts on my position had been completely reversed, and I realized that becoming a team manager was life changing, not only for me, but also for my coach and teammates. I now understand my coach’s passion because I have attained it.

Now that Ethan is a senior, we are forced to face the hard reality that he is going to be graduating. Assuming that it would be next-to-impossible to find a worthy replacement, I had already started thinking of ways to replace Ethan by committee. I would have to train guys on the team to take on certain tasks, have a rotation of guys to make sure our equipment gets brought out and put away, etc.

As fate would have it, we had a freshman run with us throughout the summer of 2017 who reminded us a little bit of a guy we knew 3.5 years ago. A kid who loved to be around the team, but did not like the idea of the constant training/racing. He just wanted to be on the team without racing.  

Enter Evan Willoughby.  Ethan now had his protege.

Throughout this season, Ethan has been training Evan. Start with attendance. Meet Coach Derks before practice, get the keys, carry out the rollers, etc. Ethan has orchestrated Evan’s development as a manager much like an offensive-minded NFL coach might develop a young quarterback. Reveal the playbook a little at a time, be patient, learn from mistakes, and gradually give them more responsibility.

Ethan taught him how to use google docs, gets splits, etc. He even began releasing Evan to do things on his own, suggesting to me that Evan go to the Buffalo Grove Freshman-Sophomore meet on his own to get experience. How did Evan do? Not even halfway home on our bus ride, Evan had already input times into our website database. While Evan and Ethan certainly have different styles and personalities, it is becoming clear that our program will be in good hands for the foreseeable future thanks to the mentoring of Ethan O’Keeffe and the youthful enthusiasm of Evan Willoughby.

It is not often that a manager is seen as the heart and soul of a team, but I believe Ethan has become just that. Our guys respect him, listen to him, and acknowledge the importance of his role on our team. He truly is seen as an assistant coach on the team. Most importantly, being a part of the PNXC family means something to Ethan. He has developed a passion.  He cares about leaving the program in a better place than when he found it.  His fingerprints will be all over the program long after he graduates.  

It’s hard to imagine where my life would be without this position and the experiences and values that have shaped me into the person I am today. Love is a strong word, but it is the only word of choice to describe the most memorable, eye opening experiences I have been blessed to enjoy with the cross-country team, my family.

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