This piece is dedicated in memory of William R. Walsh, my former football coach.
After the football teams from Holy Spirit and Atlantic City high schools played their annual Thanksgiving Day game two years ago, I walked onto the field embracing the painfully frigid air, walked to my former coach, Bill Walsh, hugged him, and cried.
He spoke in a slurred manner, but I was able to make out something like, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Have a happy Thanksgiving, too,” I replied. “I love you, coach.”
Unfortunately, that was the last time I would see him.
Coach suffered from ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The illness was the reason for his slurred speech, and his death at 52, nearly two weeks ago.
Coach made headlines outside of the local sports sections after his diagnosis. Media outlets, including NBC 10 and NJ.com, covered his story, and how the entire Holy Spirit football program and alums rose to the challenge of supporting him, as he supported us.
Coach was among us guys, as a Holy Spirit football player himself, in the 80s, where he held two jobs - quarterback and linebacker. He became the head coach in 2003.
After four years, he lead the 2007 Spartans to the New Jersey Non-Public Group III State Championship, held at Rutgers University, and left with a win. He resigned but returned as an assistant, where he coached me. While with the team in 2010, he, yet again, clinched a second state title against St. Joseph’s (Montvale), held again at Rutgers.
He left again after that, only to return after I graduated, but I believe his coaching and character-building skills contributed to two more state titles in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Since then, my class (2013) is the last Spartan football team to win the title.
Coach most likely had his favorites but believed that everyone on our team mattered. If you weren’t the best athlete, like me, as long as you participated in practice, worked hard, and supported your teammates, you had a place in his heart.
What everyone loved about coach was his ability to develop a boy’s character. He turned boys into men. As cliché as those words are, it’s the truth.
He knew life outside football was challenging, whether it was happening then or happened later. Death, poverty, and illness are examples of the challenges besides trying to construct ways to get first downs and score points. He wanted us to win but wanted to ensure we were prepared for our futures.
Helping my mother manage my father’s health, struggling to secure full-time employment in my field after college, and managing a relationship introduced a state of depression to my life last year. Though those challenges still exist, the depression has passed. I have coach to thank for giving me the character to fight through it.
“Character” is a word I frequently toss into conversations. I believe my character consists of hard work, dedication, love, kindness, and respect. Coach helped me develop those traits, and I want to follow suit with my children.
Since Coach’s death, I’ve begun to view character as a form of currency. We trade currency, such as money, and typically, it’s returned to us in some way. What if people were to trade character?
I see trading character as a vital aspect of life because if we were to trade character to others, we could see that character returned.
If we’ve prepared someone for the difficulties of having a loved one fighting and illness, that loved one may become ourselves.
In that case, having others alongside for the journey is easier than traveling alone. That was the case of Coach Walsh. He taught us, we listened, he became ill, and we stepped in as best as we could.
Think about playing that stock market. You’d become a positive influence on someone's life by preparing them for the journey, and may see your investment returned.
If you or someone you know is battling ALS and needs support, visit the ALS Association’s website, www.alsa.org.
ED. NOTE: The author is the editorial assistant at the Cape May County Herald. To contact Conklin, email email@example.com.