Still Coach, Still Daddy, But No Longer Coach Daddy


photo credit: Stormteam! via photopin (license)
photo credit: Stormteam! via photopin (license)

Trophies and medals fought so hard for denigrate quickly to the forgotten.

Even those that find a home in a hallowed hall in a glass case pass through days no one stops to remember. A Lombardi trophy must be dusted. Shiny prizes become relics in record time.

I have medals. All have finalist engraved, which translates to you didn’t win the championship game. But this last one one of my teams won? It felt like finalist+1 even though it hurt like you didn’t win the championship game+1.

It was the last time I got to coach one of my daughters, and we didn’t win the championship. We walked away with so much more.

I wish I still had the photo of Grace before the tournament.

She and I checked into the Lake Norman Fall Classic on a sunny Saturday. Fall tournaments in the Carolinas can give you warm sunshine or cold rain, and when all the medals were distributed and brackets done, we’d get both.

EJP
EJP

Grace sat on the sideline of the game in progress on the field where we’d make our debut.

I lost it when my iPhone died a few months ago. It showed her taking in a game and could she have known what this weekend would become? Were her thoughts on the last tournament she’d play with her daddy as coach? Of the turmoil that led to this, the two angry families who wanted me out?

Had she forgotten about the replacement coach who left before she started?

I’d imagine, knowing this girl for her entire life, that soccer and only soccer filled her mind.

# # #

I knew I’d write about this weekend and it’s now been almost a year.

Scores and opponents’ names fade. You’re left with gems after you’ve sifted that silt. You remember the opening win, 3-2, with a shot by your opponent that collided with the crossbar with a thud and bounced away harmlessly.

It could have rendered this post irrelevant. Instead, my group of U11 girls, my daughter among them and also a player who worked her way onto my all-time favorite team with her spirit and skill and sweetness.

(She’s the one who packed cupcakes for my birthday, and guarded them during practice like the Flying Tigers.)

EP
EP

Grace scored and her teammates played defense and her friend and teammate, she of the skill and cupcakes, recorded a hat trick on a chilly Saturday night that clinched a spot for us in the tournament final, with one match in group play left.

# # #

One coach once identified the tournament magic my teams seemed to find, many years ago.

It’s tough to deny. You won’t mistake us for world beaters, but when the prize sits within reach, my teams seem to reach deep. They did this weekend, advancing further than anyone else from our branch.

It didn’t matter no one expected us to get this far.

The Saturday sun? An afterthought. Sunday’s final in cold rain would be my last match as Coach Daddy, officially, mattered so little, but I remembered. I wondered to myself if it should be the end of the blog, too.

After this day, dad would be coach no longer. Or would it be coach would no longer be dad?

# # #

When your team reaches a final you want them to hear you.

You want them to relish the experience. To remember the teams who lost and went home, of times before and in the future your side won’t have the tournament magic and will leave not with medals, but with lessons.

soccer medalYou want them to rise to the occasion and make memories. You want them, above all, to have fun.

I want to forget title-match losses, a litany of decisions and events that have kept a man’s teams from that final step of glory. I want to reflect to these kids the pageantry of even reaching this far.

You want to warn them of the “whatever it takes” mood that seeps into matches this big will affect them, but you also want them to embrace it. You want them to play smart but take chances. To play with dignity but stick up for a teammate if needed.

This final had all that and more.

It had an early deficit and a chance to reveal character.

It had hard fouls and injuries and teammates willing to jump bad on your behalf. It included a penalty kick Grace missed that evoked tears and the angriest of equalizers, a shot she ripped from midfield that hit the back of the net on a rope.

It involved spirited tackles and brilliant saves and overtime. Then decisions to make during a PK shootout, thoughts of putting Grace in goal to absorb the pressure and lining up the players to take the gut-wrenching pressure kicks.

I wished with all I had the final shot wasn’t the final, not just to preserve our chances but to relieve the sense that it ended on her miss. Because it didn’t, at all. That child helped carry us here.

And yet on a rain-slicked field with a rain-slicked ball, her shot rolled just wide right, touching off a celebration none of us turned to see. We collapsed closest together, the players who’d taken PKs and those behind them for support.

DB
DB

I put my arms around them and there were so many cries. I didn’t know from who and it didn’t matter, and it didn’t matter what the end count was, they just had enough to win.

I wanted to insulate them for enough time to let them have their tears as I had mine.

I heard a parent tell the girls not to cry. Even Elise, my weekend assistant who’d grown to love the girls as I did, cried.

It’s what you do when you come so close, when you’re close enough to feel it.

I choked back tears as players approached in the post-game ceremony, bundled in layers and covered in grass and wounded by the reality of what almost was.

I navigated it wonderfully until No. 6 came up.

I hugged Grace hard and felt her let go of her sadness in the front of my jacket. I squeezed her for pride not only for the day but for the memories. Do you know, little girl, what joy you’ve given your dad?

How you’ve changed his life like your sisters before you?

The rain wouldn’t cease so it’s tough to know where tears fell and rain fell.

I walked alone away from the field for the last time. I didn’t seek out my players or their parents or my own daughters.

I walked alone and allowed myself to be sad as dad, to have my own tears and to know that I’ll still be coach and I’ll still be daddy, but no longer both.

Under my jacket, though, I wore the medal with finalist etched into it.

Despite the tears and the heart break and the close of a chapter that has defined my life, it definitely felt more like finalist … 

+11.

coach quote

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55 thoughts on “Still Coach, Still Daddy, But No Longer Coach Daddy”

  1. I feel for you. Ouch! My daughter does dancing and I dread the day she stops and we’ll no longer be attending the end of year dance concert. I watch every second of every dance not because I’m a dancer myself but because there’s a special magic there. Will you be continuing the blog? Hope so xx Rowena

    1. Thanks Rowee. It’s just part of the game. It’s so much part of the parent’s life too, whatever the kids gravitate to.

      I’ll definitely continue the blog. I’m still daddy and I’m still coach. Just not both to my girls anymore.

  2. Nothing I am thinking to write here in the comments seems to capture what I want to say about the emotion of it all…so I’ll just thank you for sharing this instead.

    (the replacement coach left? grrr…)

  3. Oh my, Eli, that was so moving. I found myself tearing up and wanting to hug you and Grace and the other kids. You must be so proud of them!

  4. this is one of my favorite posts that you’ve ever written, eli. you will aways be coach my eyes, as well as all of the girls whose lives you’ve touched as coach. i wish it never had to end for you and i’m so glad you decided to keep writing. you are a winner in my book, and many other’s too, i’m sure of that, including your own girls, and that is what matters most.

    1. wow, and you’ve been around here for a lot of them, beth. i love when i run across a former player, all grown up, who still call me ‘coach.’

      I can still be coach and daddy, right? And I’ll always have something to write. I just have to get used to the other sideline for my girls’ games.

  5. Aw, Eli this was so beautifully written and love how you ended this as I agree it truly isn’t about winning or losing, but that you played your best and gave it your heart and soul.

    1. So glad you liked it, Teri. That’s one of my favorite pictures ever. I could feel it when it happened, all her emotions.

      What’s cool is that we laughed and played later that day. Crushed in the moment, but always with chin up.

  6. I knew I shouldn’t have read this in school. Now the kids are looking at me, wondering why I’m near tears. I love coaching. One thing it’s taught me is that, like a dad, once a coach always a coach. I still have kids (now young adults) still call me coach. I still call my high school soccer coach “Coach”. I remember my last soccer match – regional finals. We lost 3-2. Beautiful post Eli.

    1. Sorry brother. It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve written, really written, and it felt good.

      You’re right – you can take the man off the sideline but he’ll always be a coach. I still coach, just not my kids, and I’ll always be on the sideline for my own girls.

      These matches stay with you for a lifetime, don’t they?

      1. They do stay with you. I also wrestled all four years in high school (same coach I had for soccer was also the wrestling coach). My days of coaching my own kids is coming up. Chances are good you’ll be seeing a similar post from in 12 years. Beautifully written, bud.

  7. Championships decided by PK shoot outs are gut-wrenching, but to have it as your last game as your daughter’s coach? I don’t think I could have watched. Of course there were tears.

    1. At the time, win or lose, I felt as if the extra time – overtime, the kicks – were an extension of a party I never wanted to end. I had to take in every glorious and painful bit.

  8. I have to go fix my make up now but that’s okay because this post is beautiful and worth every tear that snuck out!
    I truly wish more people played any sport with this mind set!

  9. This was wonderful, Eli. Straight from the heart, full of passion and honesty and nostalgia. It makes me wonder how my own dad felt during the last game he coached my brother. And I agree – any championship game that’s decided by penalty kicks equals jubilation for the winner and heartache for the other team.

    1. Forgot to add that your daughters will probably think of you as their “Coach Daddy” for the rest of their lives, even though you’re no longer their actual soccer coach. 😉

    2. Thank you, Sara. It took a while to surface, but I’m glad it finally did. I wonder how this would have gone had I not known it would be my last.

      Life comes down to PKs sometimes.

  10. Sheesh, what are you doing to me on this cold Monday?
    And there’s a photo. There’s a freakin’ photo!?
    I do that. I write about things, so much later. And still, every word and memory stays intact.

    1. Oh, just see that you’re up and about, that’s all. That photo tells the whole story and I love that I have it.

      The memories I should write about remained. The rest flowed out of the pan and down the river.

    1. Thanks Lisa. It took a while to figure out how to tell the story. It’s all part of the journey. The girls were awesome, that’s for sure. They’ve given me way more than I could have given them.

    1. I always cringe at that! It feels like when someone tells you you’re a great baker when you’ve bought the donuts at a bakery. These girls have drawn out of me things I never knew existed within me. It’s them, not me.

    1. So glad you saw something in my story. It means a lot coming from you! Thanks for sharing … and I’m just a guy who was lucky enough to have these kids call me coach.

  11. Eli,
    Did you know I am coaching my youngest’s soccer team this year. They’re just five and this is their first year playing, but I am having such fun! I love these kids and I love running around with them on the field. Maybe those feelings came into play when I read this, but it made me cry. What a beautiful gift you’ve given your girls by being involved so intimately with their lives. And you’re still their coach, just maybe not on the soccer field.

    1. I didn’t know, but I love that Rabia! A few seasons ago in the homestretch of an unbeaten season coaching Marie, I felt the pressure creeping in. So I came to the field early to watch the little play, and it was a reminder of why we’re there!

      I love the spot you’re in, when it’s all ahead of you. Email me if you want any suggested reading or resources – I just got a chance to ask John Calipari, the Kentucky basketball coach, for advice on coaching young kids. I might have to write a post on it!

      Soccer has been an incredible blessing I didn’t see coming at all. It’s been our unity, for my girls and me, a place we’ll always have to meet.

  12. Eli, I love this post so very much. So incredibly beautifully said (and the part where it was hard to tell what was rain or tears… good stuff, my friend). I’m sure this is an incredibly emotionally charged time for you, but it’s one you’re handling with grace. And sometimes after a chapter like this ends, you need time to be alone with your thoughts.

    You are a wonderful father and from the sounds of it, an incredibly inspiring, well loved, and respected coach 🙂 XOXO

    1. Thank you Charlotte. Fitting it would rain at a moment like that, right? It happened almost a year ago, and it took a while to sort it out and know how to write it.

      I kept coaching, and now have an academy boys team. We’re having a blast, and last night, especially, I fed off their energy and felt so in my element. I’m thankful I can feel that way still.

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Charlotte.

  13. This was a great post. I’ve never coached (not the least bit coordinated or athletic) but I think the emotions of your last game may be similar to what I felt when, after two years as cub scout den leader, my older son crossed over into boy scouts. It was a big change.

    1. Thanks Janna. It’s all rites of passage, isn’t it? I can see the parallels. Have you written about it? If so, please send me the link. Your page is jam-packed with great stuff, by the way.

  14. So much love for this post. I am just emoting Every.Where. What a gift you’ve given every one of those girls; and an incredible legacy to your daughters. I hope you know that. These are the moments that add up to such a big, big beautiful life. But I believe you know that already. 🙂

    1. Thanks Rore. It’s been brewing for months! I see only the gift they’ve given me and the life they’ve breathed into me when I needed it most. I hope they get half or a quarter out of the experience than I did.

      I think as parents we hope we could have contributed to – or at least not been a detriment to – our children’s big, beautiful lives.

  15. Eli, So you know I sat here crying as I read your post. I felt like I could feel it right there with you all! I have a feeling no matter how much time passes you will always be coach daddy to your girls. Whether it be on the field or off; they’ll turn to you for many things down the road. Congratulations on all you have accomplished together; now you all shall divide and conquer (as a family)!
    Ugh…. and those finalist medals have a bit of a sting to them… I’ve been trying to encourage my son to be just as proud of those as the champion ones; but he’s not buying it yet.
    Thank you for this post ❤

    1. Sorry Debbie! It was definitely an emotional weekend, and all that spilled out when it was over.

      I hope that something from these years we spent on the sideline will mean something to my girls – and I’m embracing the time on the other sideline just watching what they do.

      To complain about finalists medals is a bit shortsighted on my part, I realize. You’re right – there’s accomplishment in earning them, although in the moment, it’s not easy to see.

  16. Aww, such a sweet post, Eli! My dad was always very supportive with my dancing…never missed a performance (and there were a lot of them). I’ll never forget that.

    He comforted me many times, as I notoriously cried after every performance because I thought I did badly. That picture of the hugging and crying up there sums up those emotions.

    1. Thank you, Britt. Love that your dad was there for you – I hate missing anything these girls do! It’s like a container that can’t be filled again.

      I love that picture. Camdyn plays emotionally with high stakes anyway, and the moment really got us. I think there’d have been as many tears in victory, too, because it was the last chapter.

  17. Oh this made me cry. My husband coached my daughter in softball for probably 10 years. It was bittersweet when it ended. But she is 28 now and loves her coach/daddy. I can’t tell you the number of times she’s thanked him and told him how much she loves him and appreciates all his hard work. She wants her father/daughter wedding dance to be to “Put Me In Coach”. Thank you so much for sharing this. Love your blog!!

    1. Don’t be sad, Diana. I mean, I was – and there’s something about coaching your child that can’t be beat. (I feel like there’s another chapter of Coach Daddy to be written, and maybe soon.)

      It does my heart good to hear how appreciative your daughter has been to her father. We dads do this and often are unsure whether we’re doing it right. We have to see her progress and happiness and use that as a gauge, because direct feedback is rarely available!

      I’m so glad you’ve wound up here, Diana. Thanks for taking the time to read me!

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