Whenever I talk to a high school coach who quit, they always say the kids were great, but the parents drove them crazy. Doesn’t matter what sport.
But when I coached the Ann Arbor Huron High School hockey team, I was lucky. Yes, getting to know the players was the best part, and now, seven years after I stepped down, I’m going to their weddings. What I didn’t expect, though, was becoming lifelong friends with their parents, too.
The team we took over hadn’t won many games, but after we had a decent first season, three hot shots showed up at our door. They had all been coached by Fred Fragner, who once played for the Junior Red Wings.
Whenever these boys blew a great scoring chance, or received a bad call or got whacked with a stick, Fred always told them, with a grin, “Three words: Be a man.” By the time they came to Huron, all three were just that.
Fred’s son, Chris, had more talent than I could have hoped for. Even better, no one worked harder, which solves a lot of problems if you’re the coach. He got that from his father. The only real differences between them were matters of style, not substance. Fred’s character was Chris’s character.
Another problem we didn’t have was Fred Fragner butting his nose into our business. He was a much better player than I ever was, and he did a great job coaching our fall conditioning team, but he left us alone each winter, which is a great gift for any coach. He never had a bad word for anyone – with the possible exception of a few referees, who, I must say, richly deserved it. Fred Fragner knew a rotten ref when he saw one.
Chris had become so good his senior year that only one guy could keep him from being named the state’s top player – me. Other coaches would have played Chris in big blow-outs to pad his stats, but I never did – and Chris never complained. Neither did his parents. Those of you who’ve coached kids sports can appreciate what a gift that is, too.
It was only after I stepped down that a friend of mine pointed out what great families we had on our team. I hadn’t considered that as a separate factor before, but I soon realized that was the foundation of everything we had accomplished – and Fred Fragner was smack-dab in the middle of it all.
After Chris graduated, he became the first player from our high school to make the University of Michigan team in two decades. He didn’t play much, but he never complained. Now he’s using his business degree to pursue a career in finance, and playing with washed-up skaters like me on Tuesday nights.
Along the way, I’d become close friends with all the Fragners, and especially Fred, who always flashed his big rack of white teeth whenever he let loose his booming laugh. I saw that rack of white teeth and heard that laugh for the last time on Monday. After a year-long battle with an aggressive form of cancer, Fred Fragner took his last breath that night.
He was a great husband to Patty, his wife of 37 years, a great father to his daughter Jessi and to Chris, and a great friend to many more, including me.
The year had been filled with physical pain and heartbreaking setbacks, but I never heard Fred complain. He savored everything he could – including the weddings of his two children last year. Faced with a diagnosis he knew was bad news, he followed the advice he had so often given to his son. “Three words: Be a man.”
Fred Fragner was a man – one of the best I have ever known.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.