Death of a soccer coach

I never knew what it was like losing someone from your past until it actually happened.

I recently learned that my soccer coach passed away from lung cancer. The last time I saw him was a year ago at the gym. It had probably been five years since we spoke. I knew he was battling cancer, and in a selfish form of denial, I didn’t reach out earlier. I wish I had.

His hair was thinning and his clothes were baggy, but my militant, kind-hearted coach was still there. Naturally, I gave him a bear hug and brought him up to speed on my life. Then we went back to our gym routines. That was the last time I saw him.

Harry Tom was never a man of many words, but the ones he did speak carried so much weight, you’d think the world would shake with each syllable he uttered. This was true from the moment I met him, when I tried out for his soccer team at age 13. I wish I had the chance to tell him how deeply his faith in me — when I made the team — would shape me for years to come.

Camila at age 13: A slightly overweight, painfully shy teen, who spent most of her time on NeoPets and posting her wolf doodles on Deviant Art. I was weird as fuck (and I still am). By the pestering of my mother, I decided to try out for a competitive soccer team. I had noncommittally played soccer and softball since the age of 5, and my mom dared suggest my potential could turn into something better than wolf drawings and painting my NeoPets (I’m so sorry I abandoned them, truly).

So I tried out. And fuck; it was the most nerve-wracking, scary, and embarrassing thing my pubescent self had done. I severely doubted I would make the team — everyone was so much more with it than I was. And there was Harry — who probably spoke all of ten words during the two-day try out. His silent, stony gaze was unnerving. I figured this would be one of the many failures of my life. But Harry had other plans for me.

I did indeed make the team, and over the next five years, I upped my skills, competitive nature, and most importantly, my confidence. I credit that to Harry. And I learned the hard way.

Getting used to Harry’s coaching style took a minute (an entire season). It’s difficult to not take it personally when you see your coach  repeatedly hit himself in the forehead with his clip board on the sideline of a game, or when he verbally assaults you with harsh — but valuable — words at practice. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t return home from practice or an unsuccessful tournament crying. But I digress, Harry’s intense, albeit short-tempered demeanor wasn’t a reflection of judgement, disdain, or doubt. I think many people jumped to that conclusion, and threw in the towel. His coaching style isn’t for everyone, and I know I wouldn’t be the first to admit that. For 13-year-old me, learning to accept constructive criticism — at a very high volume — wasn’t easy.

It’s not that his words and coaching — no matter how harsh — were invaluable. It’s because they came from a place of belief. Harry didn’t insult you because he doubted you — it’s because he believed in you. He cared. In hindsight, I’m overwhelmed by how much faith, support, and guidance Harry gave each of his players in his own way. He actually gave a shit. And he pushed us during every practice, game, and tournament. His unwavering emotional investment was always, always there. And apart from obviously wanting to win games, I genuinely believed he had an intuition for recognizing the potential in each and every one of us — and I do not think that is something you find in many coaches, let alone humans.

This past week I was added to a Facebook group message with all of the women who played on Harry’s team. So many of us are spread across the world, and do not keep in touch. But with each response, everyone noted how Harry touched our lives so deeply — and years later, long after many of us stopped playing soccer — that sentiment is still shared among all of us.

So it pains me that I never took the opportunity to thank him for the gift of confidence and audacity. The regret will fester in me for a while. But what I do know, is that even if I did thank him, he’d tell me I had it in me all along.


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