DeSmet Diaries: The importance of coaches: some thoughts on Father Ralph Passerelli, S.J., my first cross country coach

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Updated December 31, 2016.

Coaches, like teachers, do not get the respect that they deserve. The coaches who work with us, during our formative years, do much more than build athletes. They teach life lessons. Here is a new series that I am starting on how coaches change our lives.

Start-GreatXC04.jpgCross country start, photo by PhotoRun.net

Father Ralph Passarelli, S.J., was my freshman high school cross country coach. This man had the patience of a saint, as he coached a group of fifty hyperactive cross country runners at De Smet Jesuit High School in Creve Couer, Missouri. Father Ralph did not run with us, but he managed our workouts, provided advice, and showed us how to race. Father Ralph was a man of quite confidence. Midway through our freshman season, Father Ralph joined us in a pick up game of basketball. When Father Ralph, then, in his mid fifties, and in his clerical blacks, out played the best freshman basketball player, Father Ralph had the respect of the whole team.

Freshman boys are a fickle lot. Getting their respect is kind of like herding cats, it is a difficult and trying effort. Father Ralph got it, though. He was not one of the boys, and he did not try to be. He tolerated much of our nonsense, but a stern look, and we knew we had reached the limit.

Father Ralph realized that coaches were not buddies of athletes, but managers, cheerleaders, confessors, and teachers. We learnt about running from Father Ralph. We learnt about fartlekt, and how to race effectively race on our home course.

Those were the immediate lessons of my season of 1972. I finished last or nearly last in all of my freshman races. Father Ralph would encourage me, provide me tips on how to improve my running, and at the end of the season, he provided a book noting how everyone had run that year and who improved the most.

Even with no success, I was hooked on running. I loved the racing, and the smells of the fall cross country season: recently cut grass, humidity, voices encouraging us to race and run, and that last mad sprint across the football field or soccer pitch to the finish.

Father Ralph was one of my favorite coaches. He instilled in my freshman team a love of the sport, the sense of team, and the respect of hard earned fitness. We were proud to be cross country runners. We also knew the place of sports in our life, and how important an education and the specific experience we had in education gave us both advantages, but major reponsibility. A huge life lesson was taught by Father Ralph, but know that he provided us a strong example in his daily life.

A coach is about lessons learnt, and strength built. The least of those strengths is about the physical.

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