Two years ago, Joe Coe, who ran the hurdles for me for two years, graduated after winning a total of three individual Independent School state championships – two in the 300 hurdles and one in the 110s. As a junior, he won both hurdle events, and as a senior he won the 300s, losing by four hundredths of a second to his teammate, RaShawn King, in the shorter race. Joe and I grew to be very close in the two years that he attended Ravenscroft School; I would go so far as to say that I came to look upon him as a younger brother, and I still do. His personality is more similar to mine than that of anyone else I’ve ever coached. When I first met Joe as his English teacher, he had just moved to Raleigh, along with his mother and two younger brothers, from the streets of Baltimore. Joe’s first paper for me was a personal essay in which he described his family situation – how he now had to be a father to his younger brothers because his father had recently left the family for no apparent reason. So Joe came here with a lot of anger inside him. The paper was very well-written, revealing his pain and confusion instead of just venting his rage. In the essay I saw that Joe is a sensitive person who appreciates other people’s pain. None of that changed in the two years that I coached him. On the track team, having Joe around was like having an assistant coach with me. He gave advice and helpful tips to younger athletes, even if they were running the same event as he. In his junior year, he took my African-American Literature elective, which was easily the best class I have ever taught. There were only five students in the class – three black, two white – and we all got along beautifully well. The interaction between the students and the openness of the discussions was so refreshing that it made me feel proud to be a teacher. In that little microcosm, we proved that white and black can get along, can understand each other, can communicate with each other. Joe was a big part of the reason that class clicked so magically. The side of Joe that we saw in that class was a side that most people don’t see. Most people only see the scowling “angry black man,” because that is the public persona he had adopted.
The Baltimore street thug in Joe was a very real aspect of his character. He wasn’t not just a tough guy who thought he was bad; he had a lot of anger built up inside of him from his earlier years and from his father’s sudden departure. In March of his senior year, Joe got into what almost became a rumble in the student commons during the morning fifteen-minute break period. I was in the snack line to get my usual chocolate muffin and orange juice when I looked over and saw Joe pushing somebody. I thought he just clowning, because the black students were always clowning each other during break. But then I heard him yell something, and then Rickey Taylor, another strong, black football player, grabbed him, trying to hold him back. Apparently, as I found out later, another black student had taken Joe’s seat and was making wisecracks after Joe asked for the seat back. So the whole brouhaha was over nothing, really. Anyway, as Rickey grabbed Joe, it became clear to me that Joe wasn’t just clowning; he was enraged. He was pointing a finger at the kid and trying to break free of Rickey’s hold on him. (Thank God it was Rickey, because there aren’t many people strong enough to hold back Joe when he’s angry). I rushed over there to help squash things as well. Rickey hurried Joe through the double doors and out into the open air, where I talked to him. I have to admit that my motive, on the level of instinct, was selfish. All I could think of was that my returning state champion hurdler was in the process of getting himself suspended, and that if I didn’t so something quick, this rumble might get big enough to end his season and his tenure as a student here. That’s how mad he was. Once outside, I explained to him that he had to control his temper; he had too much to lose – with his senior track season still ahead of him. Was he going to blow that over somebody taking his chair? I told him he was lucky it was me who saw him instead of some other teacher, because another teacher wouldn’t see that Joe Coe is really a good guy, a good leader, a strong black male who just happened to lose it. Another teacher would have seen an enraged black student acting way out of line, in a manner that was totally inappropriate for a college-preparatory setting, and that would be the end of him. When I said those things, I noticed that he visibly calmed down. Joe was not naïve; he knew the deal. He knew that, in spite of the difficulties that come along with being a minority in a majority setting, going to a private school like ours offered him educational opportunities that he wouldn’t have access to elsewhere. But his temper had gotten control of him, somebody had pressed the button that would set him off, and all the rational thoughts had flown from his head in an instant. Once I broke it down to him, he was cool.
The same energy that almost led to Joe going completely nuts in the commons that day is the same energy that made him successful as an athlete. I have coached faster runners than Joe, but I have never coached a better competitor. When it came time to race, Joe feared no one. I have seen him fall behind in races and then seemingly will himself to victory. In the 300 hurdles at the state meet of his junior year, he was in fourth place heading into the final straightaway, then he got this look on his face that said, “I’m gonna win this damn race,” and he caught all three people ahead of him and ended up winning by more than half a second. His approach to hurdling reminded me so much of my own when I used to compete. On the day of a meet, he was focused on his races before classes even began. He was a difficult person to talk to on those days because he was already in the zone. And that’s where I wanted him; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In terms of time distribution, track consists of 99% training and 1% competing, so when it comes time to compete, I don’t like for my athletes to be nonchalant about it. When it’s time to bring the ruckus, bring the ruckus, and don’t be acting like you “hope” you’ll have a good race. In addition, he had a natural curiosity about hurdling, a natural coach’s mentality. He would browse the internet to find new workouts, weight-training programs, technique tips, etc. Those are the kinds of things I used to do when I competed. Always looking for ways to improve. And it’s not so much about being dedicated or disciplined, but simply about having fun. Joe had a very competitive friendly rivalry with another of our hurdlers, RaShawn King, who, as I mentioned earlier, ended up beating Joe in the 110s in Joe’s senior year, which was RaShawn’s junior year. When RaShawn first started learning how to hurdle in his sophomore year, Joe helped him a great deal. He coached him, encouraged him, and stayed on him as much as I did, if not more. I don’t think that RaShawn would have stuck with the hurdles were it not for Joe. I can’t say for sure that he would have even come out for track to begin with. Still, when it came time to race, Joe wanted to beat RaShawn just as much as he wanted to beat anyone else on the other teams. So Joe was more than willing to help, but not willing at all to lose. In that sense, he embodied the essence of the healthy competitive spirit. He understood innately that he couldn’t get better if he wasn’t helping his teammates to get better, and that an opponent who is capable of beating him would inevitably bring out the best in him.
Well, Joe’s temper finally cost him when he lost to RaShawn at the state meet his senior year. When he found out he lost, he screamed a curse word that I didn’t hear at the time. I just saw him storming off the track after the race was over. One of our other runners was yelling to him to come back. I was bewildered. We had swept the race, finishing 1-2-3, yet Joe was steamed. That’s when I found out that he had lost to RaShawn by a few hundredths. He got disqualified for cursing, and is lucky he didn’t get thrown out of the meet. Now I was angry. We had swept the race, but he goes cussing and stomping off because he didn’t finish first, even though it was his own teammate that he had lost to. Seemed pretty selfish to me, and it also jeopardized what, at that point, was a good chance of our team winning the meet. Throughout the season, I had had to worry about Joe losing his temper. He would get so hyped up before races that the competitive focus often spilled over into anger. If someone randomly walked into his lane while he was warming up over the hurdles, that person was sure to get yelled at. If the starter gave him attitude, Joe would give the starter attitude right back. He had come close to getting disqualified on more than one occasion, so when it happened at the state meet, I wasn’t surprised. I was angry, and disappointed, but not surprised. I was also not surprised that, shortly after finding out he had cost the team eight points, he walked up to me very humbly and apologized. Like I said, Joe’s a good guy. Having grown up with two parents who cared for me and provided for me, having grown up in an environment where I could go outside and play in the yard without any fear of danger, I can’t judge someone like Joe, who wasn’t as fortunate. Growing up on the streets, you don’t learn to control your anger; conversely, you need that anger as fuel for survival. I can’t relate to such an upbringing; that’s why I never tried to judge Joe, or never really tried to change him, which is why we got along so well. What I did try to do was help him understand how his temper was destructive to himself more so than to anyone else. At the state meet, I think he got the point.
Joe is currently a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth. He ran for them last year, but had difficulties with injuries. He is now focusing more on his academics, but I do hope he stays involved in track in some capacity as he enters adulthood. Though I know he’s got to find himself a real job, I would also really like to see him coach at some level. He has a passion for the sport, vast knowledge of the hurdle events, and the ability to relate to people that is necessary for successful coaching. Whenever he was in town last year, he would show me new drills he had learned, and he would also explain the details of various workouts he was doing in college. During his spring break, I allowed him to plan workouts and basically run practice for our sprinters and hurdlers for two days. He did a great job, and the kids got a lot out of it. I got a lot out of it myself.
No doubt about it, Joe is my brother. Not just my black brother, but much more significantly than that, he is my hurdling brother. And as I’ve said so many times before, we hurdlers have to stick together. We’re all we have.
© 2004 Steve McGill