Mitch, Mitch, Mitch…what were you thinking? How could it not occur to you to try Mondays with Morrie? People love alliteration. Has my blog title The Phil Factor not taught you anything?
In high school I was on the indoor track team. I know, sexy right? I was good, but not great. I was a skinny, shy teenage boy lacking confidence in my abilities. I didn’t think or believe that I could be great and that thinking limited me. I ran as fast as was comfortable most of the time. Comfortable gets you good, not great. I may not have believed in myself, but one person did.
Chris Tanski was a slightly pudgy, bespectacled Polish man with a knee brace. He didn’t look like he had a single athletic gene in his entire body, but he was our indoor track coach and he worked us harder in practice than anything else I’ve ever done. The best thing about him was that he could see through me, or perhaps that he took the time to see through me. He could see that I had more in me, even when I couldn’t see it myself.
One of his favorite tactics, when he knew that I wasn’t really pushing myself, was to call me out in front of the whole team in practice. “If Taylor doesn’t do this next lap in sixty seconds, everyone has to do five more.” I hated him for that. Running, on the verge of tears, and cursing him in my head; there was never a single time that I didn’t get that last lap in the time he wanted me to. He knew. He knew about me what I didn’t know yet.
One of Coach Tanski’s biggest pet peeves with me was how I ran my races. I looked back. As I rounded a turn I’d look back to see if someone was gaining on me. How’s that for a life metaphor huh? As we boarded the bus for the sectional championships he came down the aisle of the bus stopping to offer words of strategy or encouragement to some of us. When he got to my seat he stopped and looked me in the eyes and put his hands on my shoulders. As he spoke both of our eyes welled up.
I’d love to be able to tell you the inspirational words he gave to me that day, but honestly, I don’t remember. What I do remember was the effect his words had on me. That night I ran hard, I ran forward and I never looked back. When my leg of the relay was completed I collapsed on the side of the track, exhausted; every ounce of energy drained from my body.
About thirteen years after that night, in a city 90 miles from where I had run that race, I was sitting in my office in a school for children with emotional and behavioral issues when my phone rang. “Phil, this is Chris Tanski. How have you been?” He was a principal at a nearby high school and had recently referred a student to me. At the end of the conversation he said, “We should go out for a beer and catch up.” I agreed that we should, but never made plans. A couple more times over the year we had similar conversations that ended with the offer to get together over a pint and reminisce. Some time that summer I got the news. Coach Tanski has passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. In the most unfortunate way, I had just learned another life lesson from Coach Tanski and this time there were no more chances to say thank you.
Coach Tanski, if you’re somewhere that gets wi-fi, this blog and the beer pictured below are my way of having that beer with you and saying thanks.
Phil, he taught a lot of us how to believe in ourselves. And he more than likely knows when we all occasionally toast him with a beer.