I am getting on a commercial airliner Thursday for the first time since the 9/11 attacks 12 years ago. I am flying back to my home state of Georgia for a special reason -- my dad, the late Coach Bruce Long, is being inducted into the Cook County Sports Hall of Fame. I wouldn't miss it.
He was a longtime high school coach there -- assistant football, head baseball, and started the girls softball program. He was also heavily involved in recreational sports, running the local swimming pool for a couple of years, part of adult softball leagues and later umpiring in those leagues.
This isn't the first time I've gone back to Adel, Ga., to witness my father being honored. In 1994, the high school field where I, my older brother Bruce and younger brother Jim all played baseball for Dad, was named for him.
Locals now simply call it "The Bruce."
I can't begin to tell you how proud I was of dad in 1994 and am again. He obviously touched a lot of lives in his coaching career. Are there any state championship trophies on the mantle? One, in football early in his career. But as much as Coach Long loved to win -- and he did -- coaching was about much more than that.
As a single dad raising six kids, he brought that same parenting mentality to coaching. He meant something to his players. He was a father figure. He was someone they could talk to and someone they would listen to.
In my first book, "A Long Look at Life, Volume I Prose and Poetry," the last story is called "The Winning Edge." It recounts my senior year in high school when I started the first six games batting .429 and helping the Cook High Hornets off to an undefeated start.
Then I separated my shoulder when I fell rounding third base. I didn't suit up again all year -- senior season lost.
That was until the very last game of the year, when I stayed behind in the locker room and put on my uniform for the first time since my injury. I had visions of jogging out, the crowd rising as one, teammates clapping their approval. We needed this win to finish with a winning record for the year. I would inspire my teammates to victory.
But as I made my way from field house to field, no one noticed. Not one cheer. Not one clap. Not one eyebrow raised.
Well, maybe one. I took my place on the bench and dad sauntered over.
"What's up?" he asked.
"I'm ready if you need me. Pinch runner. Pinch hitter. Base coach. Anything."
He put his hand on my shoulder, the good one, and simply said, "Thanks, son."
He knew what I was trying to do even if no one else did.
And the story ends: "...maybe I learned what this coach's son business is all about -- having that winning edge inside ready to do whatever it takes for the team to succeed. And in life, too, that comes in mighty handy. Thanks, Dad!"
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