The summer before Mac McKenzie became our little league baseball coach, I spent the season picking dandelions in right field, and batting last. But just weeks after Coach Mac took over, I rose to starting catcher, lead-off hitter, and team captain. Trust me, I was no bigger, faster or stronger than I was the previous season. But I had one thing I didn’t have the year before: confidence. Instead of playing back on my heels, I was up on my toes, and swinging for the fences.
I’m sure Coach Mac’s influence planted my desire to become a coach myself – and later, a teacher, too.
Last summer, when I wrote about Coach Mac, I admitted I had no idea where he ended up after his family moved to California the next year, or even if he was still alive. Well, a couple days later, I got a thank you letter from Coach Mac himself.
Just getting it thrilled me, but his message was even better. It was direct, honest and funny – just like the man himself. He told me about his family, about moving to Scottsdale, about his two bypass surgeries. In 1990, he received a heart transplant. He said he’d read my books and had every intention of writing years ago, but never followed through. But that day, when his wife found my story on line, this is what he wrote:
“I was blown away to see my name and the wonderful things that you had to say about me and my influence on you. I have had a very good and successful life with a few plaques, awards and complimentary speeches given to me, but none compare to what you said and how you have honored me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
I don’t know if Coach Mac got choked up writing it, but I got choked up reading it. I promised him I’d write him a longer letter soon, and fully intended to. But my fall filled up with travel and speeches, deadlines and classes. I kept waiting to find enough time to write The Perfect Letter – and kept waiting. I wrote down Coach Mac’s name on my to-do list month after month.
Three nights ago, I was teaching my sports writing students at Northwestern University how to write a profile. I told them their subject doesn’t have to be famous. It could even be one of their former coaches. Then I spontaneously launched into my story of Coach Mac, right down to the sweat dripping off the tip of his nose while he smashed grounder after grounder during practice. I couldn’t resist telling my students how great it was to hear from Coach Mac – which provided just another reminder I still needed to write him. I scribbled his name down yet again.
I got my final reminder the very next day, when I received an email from a friend of Coach Mac’s I’d never met before. His message was as simple and direct as Coach Mac himself. “We lost Mac yesterday.”
This hit me harder than I expected. After all, I couldn’t have believed he’d live forever. I felt grateful I’d written the story about him – and even more fortunate that Coach Mac had read it, and responded.
But when I went back to read our correspondence, I was chagrined to realize I had never written him the longer letter I’d promised. I felt worse when I saw he lived in Scottsdale. A couple months after he sent me his first letter, I was invited to give a speech in Scottsdale – and if I had kept in better touch, I would have put it together, and Coach Mac and I would have gone out for a beer I would never have forgotten.
Still, we can’t do everything. I realize that. And I’m lucky. I know that, too.
After I drove back to Ann Arbor that night, about game time, I swung by Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, where Coach Mac smacked all those grounders years ago. I was surprised to find the ball field has been replaced by a garden, with a shed in the middle of it. But when I crouched down into my old position, where home plate used to be, I could see it all – right down to Coach Mac, sweat dripping off his nose, tapping me another bunt to throw to first base.
Thanks, Coach. Sorry it took me so long to write.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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