Little Things Make a Difference!
(Written Oct. 30, 2011)
This past week I learned of the loss of a childhood friend (Bill Nix) to a heart attack at age 42. Every loss comes with its memories. In this loss, I’m filled with good memories and a realization of how little things can make a difference. While I haven’t seen Bill more than once since our H.S. graduation many years ago, I recall kindness that he showed me in our youth.
It was 1976-77 the first time I met Bill. At that time, I was a less than popular 3rd/4th grader who was a bit chubby and shy. I stayed in the background while desiring to become part of the foreground. Part of my memory of that period was of teams choosing sides and often being the guy left out. I’d make my way over to a lonely swing and sit on it, wondering how I might make my way into the crowd of desirables. While it would be some time before that would happen, there was a change that occurred with the arrival of a new “stallion” of sorts.
That “stallion” arrived sometime into the school year. He seemed tall, although that was probably reflected more through his thin build, dark hair, and new running shoes. He seemed to wear a permanent smile and joyful demeanor that immediately attracted almost every kid across three grades, including me. While I can’t remember details, I remember him making a significant impression on the boys with what seemed a strange desire to run. I remember him running around our rather large playground with many other boys following behind, but unable to keep up. I knew I couldn’t keep up, so I kept my distance and watched what now seems a boyish “marking” of territory. While I don’t believe this marking was conscious, it was perceived this way by the other stronger and faster boys who previously “owned” the playground. Bill didn’t seem to care who owned what, he just did what he did, smiled, and made friends. Within a few days, the playground was his, and the tone of the playground seemed to become friendlier and more welcoming to the less desirables. While my “playing time” on the playground basketball court or football field didn’t increase substantially, it did increase as there was a new tone that meant more inclusion.
Around the same time, another new boy, Duane (Bolton) Kroeker, moved to town and befriended me almost immediately. He was a strong and athletic boy who seemed to take a special interest in some of those on the bottom of the popularity pole. His stature often yielded him the position of team captain. From that position, he almost always picked an undesirable (me) first. Bill seemed to honor that posture and do the same until it almost became a rule of the playground. It didn’t matter who you were if you wanted to play, these two boys would often work to find a way for inclusion. Until now, I had never thought about how the action of these boys forever played a part in how I interact with others.
With Duane’s friendship and encouragement, my confidence began to grow. While I wasn’t the strongest or fastest, his engaging me gave me the opportunity and confidence that I otherwise would not have had. Likewise, Bill’s seeming acceptance, from his position of popularity meant the game was never “locked,” rather there was some level of opportunity for most who wanted to participate. At the same time, my father got me playing soccer. I recognized that there were multiple purposes in his encouragement, but later was able to see his wisdom as I quickly grew in strength, endurance, and speed. I did not realize to what degree I was changing physically, and being encouraged by my father and Linda Edwards (friend and soccer coach) as I still perceived myself at the bottom of the pecking order although I wore my blue Wrangler's uniform with pride.
While playing a fairly unpopular sport at the time, I was growing mentally and physically more than I knew. While Duane moved away later in elementary, Bill remained but was not really in the spectrum of my focus again until 7th grade and the first day of football practice.
I had grown to be one of the taller boys in a class of over 200 students. That new stature had come with strength and speed that I didn’t know was there. Before that first football practice, my father had encouraged me to do what I wanted to do when it came time to choose a position to try out for. He made it clear that it would be difficult, but I needed to follow my heart, not the jeers of the boys or coaches. I did not want to be a lineman, but my size and peer expectation said that was the obvious position for me. As one of the largest boys at 5’8” 148 lb, there would be no other thought. Dad explained that what happened at that practice would significantly influence what happened for me in football going forward.
The time came, and the coaches told us to go to a specific location on the field based on what position we wanted to try out for. The whistle blew, and everyone made his choice. I stood there a bit too long and got an additional whistle, and my name called out by Coach Gwartney who promptly directed me to the linemen. I turned and ran the opposite direction to the running backs. There was a bit of commotion that ensued as coaches and peers informed me with laughs and yells, that I was in the wrong place. I refused to go with the linemen until the coach eventually said I could only stay with the running backs if I could outrun all of those who were wishing to try out for that position. We (running backs) were put on the line and had to run 3, 40-yard dashes. To my surprise, and likely everyone else’s, I won all three of those races. That did not satisfy the coaches, or perhaps they were trying to prove some other point. Coach then declared that I would have to outrun who we believed to be one* of the fastest boys on the team, Bill Nix, who had gone with the receivers when that first whistle blew. At this point, I was certain that my career as a running back was ending abruptly after only 10 minutes. Now the whistle blew one more time, and this whistle defined much of my next 6-years. (*I believe Shane Davis also had to run with Bill & me.)
I outran Bill by a whisker. A few high-fives were exchanged, and I was welcomed to the core of backs and receivers. As had been the case back in 3rd grade, Bill welcomed me to “the team.” I remember that day as the beginning of great friendships with other boys who were team players and welcoming of me. Stephen Turley and Casey Harrel were two of those who truly made me feel like I was worthy of being in the backfield with them. Another friend, Teece Chambers, with his gift of verbal affirmation, named Turley and I “Shake & Bake.” I was the “bake” half of the equation as Stephen was more shifty. I just ran over guys if I couldn’t outrun them until everyone else began to outgrow me.
Bill was one of many great guys I was blessed to grow up with. I was blessed to be in what I believe was the best class to graduate PHS because of guys like these. I could name dozens of guys whose actions and words influenced me and helped shape me as a boy. These guys, and others, from the football and basketball teams in grade seven through grade nine, made a big difference in my world. Those three years forever changed me and gave me a level of confidence that I previously did not have. Although Duane was the genesis of newfound confidence, guys like these and others played an important role in what my sports future would look like, but it was my father who pushed me to believe in myself, take the risk, and be whom I wanted to be.
As I write this story, I regret that it takes one’s death to realize what a big impact, little things can have.