This year, my years as a journalist have been spent doing what I love. As a sports writer, my first assignment was in 1976 to cover Frank Thomas being named an All-Star. I didn’t know it then, but Thomas would ultimately become the finest player in the history of the Chicago White Sox and could go down as the greatest player of all time. As I entered my mid-40s, I realized that I wasn’t going to make as many grand sacrifices as I could have and possibly lose my own path through life.
When I was 27, I had a health scare with the rare neurofibromatosis called Osteosarcoma. It had been an excruciating battle; as I grew up in South Florida, I had seen every sign. Kids with sarcomas regularly die at ages five and seven. One of the doctors I saw told me I’d be gone by 30. That was my crash course.
So I decided I would take a year off from school in the hopes that those that could survive might someday have a better life.
Over the following months, I’d take my car and go out to the Florida Everglades where I had my first experiences with conservation work. I met many indigenous people who didn’t do a great job caring for their environment; they hadn’t been planted in nature. So I figured I’d create our own organization and have some part in helping the native people.
Through the efforts of Don Caporale and Mary Lovett at Miami Dolphins, I took some of my first trips as an environmentalist and eventually became one of the world’s leading high school scholars. I think it was that recognition that landed me an interview with Outward Bound (or Outward Bound) founder, Curtis Sliwa. They were looking for teachers with a commitment to kids and who were beginning to experience the satisfaction of purpose. I thought that was the kind of thing I would do in retirement.
My self-indulgence came into play when I sat down with Dr. Daniel Seff, the guy that’d run training programs for all of the National Football League. He had just signed with a medical practice, who asked me if I could do some coaching. He said he was “trained” by one of his football clients and was willing to help him. I was ecstatic, telling my family I was going to become a football coach. They were less thrilled.
I woke up from a nap and couldn’t sleep. I sat outside in the early morning light and started kicking around the idea of this being a coaching career. When my youngest son was about 6 years old, he crawled into bed and told me he had made me go back in time. I brushed it off as a night dream. But as I sat with a friend who was his junior high teacher, I realized that something was finally driving me. I had given this kid my hopes, my heart, and his life. As a parent, you have the power to help your children achieve goals. And I had told him that I was going to make him go back in time. But when I realized he was talking about me, the power of that was like a switch that took me back in time. I told myself I was going to do whatever it took to get my son back in time and go to Junior High School.
So, I started my “coaching” career, driving around and interacting with kids. I coached high school football in Eugene, Oregon for about seven years and was a head wrestling coach for about five years, which included winning a state championship.
I was asked to do a Today Show Weekend piece about what I’d learned as a coach. They wanted me to “get real about the real world” and talk about what I was learning and looking for in my own life. I gave this amazingly cynical TV person a real hug and said, “I’m a redneck from Florida.” I still get that grin when I tell people. “Even though I’m a fished, I’m going to get myself a job coaching kids in South Florida.”
Me and the kids did enjoy life. We went swimming, had a great time learning that high school football was much different from what we’ve grown up with and playing Pop Warner football. But I found my life through sports very hard.
I did keep going through college, but I made no moves forward. Then I heard from Mr. Sliwa. He said that he was a redneck from Queens with a heart of gold and that I should give this out-of-work young man and his “little daughter” a job. He said it was a good thing he did it and that I could do it too.
I taught my daughter a year, then decided to put some of that experience into a sustainable farming startup.