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Monday, March 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Dad!

Today is my dad's 76th birthday. As he says, "He begins the march towards 80." It's a little hard for me to believe that he's actually "heading toward 80" because he doesn't seem like an older man. My father has a great sense of humor as evidenced by the photo above of him posing as an Olympic weightlifter. Yes, he appeared on national TV in this outfit thanks to his 15 minutes of fame on Let's Make A Deal! No, he did not win the car. He is also a fierce competitor. This has not waned in his senior years and perhaps is even more fierce now that he is not coaching American Football any longer.
He spent his career coaching high school football. His nickname was Coach Moon based on the very old comic strip Moon Mullins. He was also wildly successful. I should have the stats but I don't. Suffice it to say that he won a lot of games and lost very few. His teams appeared in the Southern California Sectional finals (the equivalent of most State championships given the size of the California) 6 times and he won twice. The photo to the left is taken after his first state title victory. He went to the play-offs almost every year. In fact, I rarely remember a Thanksgiving without football as Thanksgiving week-end was always the second round of the play-offs and he never once lost in the first round. He was a genius of a coach, both in the basics of football but more importantly in the art of shaping young lives. My mother was affectionately known as Mrs. Moon and our house literally swarmed with high school football players all the time. His teams had a time-honored tradition of getting crew cuts at the start of each season and my mom was a genius with hair clippers, so piles of guys would line up in our kitchen while Mrs. Moon buzzed off their sacred locks. Hair, to a high school boy, was pretty important. They complained about this custom, but in the end I think most of them secretly loved it as it was an obvious signal on campus that they were on the football team.
If you are unfamiliar with the high school football culture of Southern California it will be hard for you to grasp the sheer importance of winning and being successful in this arena. Consider 'Friday Night Lights' meets 'Remember the Titans'. For most of his career, my father coached at schools where wealth abounded among the families whose kids played for my dad. This led to certain power struggles and asserting of wills that put pressure on my father to make something great of all players, no matter how skilled or unskilled they actually were. My father was able to handle the unique mix of personalities that surrounded him and in spite of differences, forge deep and abiding friendships with many of the parents that exist even to this day.
But beyond the brilliance in football he gave to these young men are the life lessons that he instilled within them. For some, he was the father figure who was missing in their lives. For others, he became a mentor, not only during high school, but for life as evidenced by how it continues to this day. A tribute to his ability to connect with the young men who played for him is the sheer number of former players who still keep in touch with him. It is staggering for me to think of what an amazing role he has played in these people's lives. When my brother died 2 years ago, not a small number of former players showed up at his funeral in order to support my mom and dad. Some flew in from other states. Others drove quite a long distance. And again, when we celebrated my parent's 50th wedding anniversary, colleagues, players and parents all showed up to cheer them on one more time. One of the greatest gifts that I have received over the past two years is seeing first hand the astounding connection that he has maintained with players and coaches and parents from a career that spanned 45 years. But not just connection. Also influence.
Of course, being of the female gender and growing up in the 60's and 70's, I was not allowed to play football so I never had the privilege of playing under his fine leadership. This I regret. I have also never had a coach of his caliber in my athletic career and this too I regret. I see how the former players look up to him. Desire his opinion. Seek out his wisdom and it is simply mind-boggling to consider the impact he has made on so many. The footprint that my father has left in people's lives is simply put, gigantic.
Of course, the impact that he has made on me is also remarkable. I am competitive because of him. A simple card game in our household turns into the World Championship of Cribbage. We egg each other on and love to make snide remarks. I find this a good thing. I love being competitive. It gives you an edge. It keeps your head in the game. It drives you to excel. I am thankful that he taught me to love sports and to play them with fire and drive. I am a good critical thinker because of him. He never forced me to agree with him and in fact I cut my argumentative teeth around our dinner table. At one point in his life I don't think chauvinist is too strong of a description. When Title IX emerged onto the national scene, my father was opposed to it. ( Of course, I could not understand how equality for women in sport was anything but awesome and he felt differently in those days. He was protecting his interests. He genuinely felt boys athletics would suffer and he was committed to boys athletics. It's all a bit ironic given that he was initially drawn to my mother because she was an awesome softball player. To his credit, he has changed and now really enjoys watching the women on the national scene. But we argued and argued in those days and the beauty of it was that he never expected that I would kowtow to his viewpoint. He wanted me to think openly and freely even when we disagreed. That continues to this day. We sometimes don't see eye to eye, but he always listens and is always able to show respect for my process even if he in the end doesn't support my viewpoint.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this tough football coach's life is how he has emerged as such an amazing care-giver for my mom over the past two years. He has learned to do the laundry, cook the food, do the grocery shopping, and handle all of the domestic chores while my mom's been on her difficult journey through cancer. He has sat by her bedside while waiting for news of what was next. He's called 911 twice and watched with fear and anxiety as the paramedics worked on mom under dire circumstances. He has called in tears wondering how to handle the next phase. And he has done it all with minimal complaint and the same focused, winning spirit that served him well throughout his coaching career. Sure, he's a stubborn man, but that stubbornness also allows him to stay the course when things are really bad. He hates to lose, but that helps him win in most situations. He's generous and available and that's why people are drawn to him and stick with him. He's a man of faith and lives deeply by his convictions but never oppresses another with his opinion yet somehow leads them to ponder their own spirituality.
In his glory days, he was larger than life on the sidelines. A wonder to behold. Yelling and sweating. Grabbing kids by the jersey, whispering something in their ear, throwing them back out onto the field, and moments later celebrating a touchdown. Coach Moon. I have no problem claiming that he was definitely one of the best high school coaches ever. Just ask anyone who played for El Modena, Villa Park, Foothill or Anaheim while he was head coach. Better yet. Ask his opponents.
Happy Birthday dad. I celebrate you today. Your accomplishments are noteworthy, but the deep impact you've made on so many lives, not the least of which is mine, is what we all love you for. (Do the couple below have amazing legs or what?!)