“Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright, and when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice, but still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
–from The Shawshank Redemption
Eight years ago I wrote an article entitled “My Greatest Moment as a Coach.” That article told the story of Cameron Akers, who, in 2001, won the 110m hurdles at the USATF Region III Championships in the 15-16 age group, The meet took place at North Carolina State University – the same track where we trained back then as members of the Raleigh Junior Striders Track Club. In that race, Cameron set what was at the time a meet and age group record of 14.23, and he defeated Dexter Faulk of Georgia in the process. Faulk went on to beat Cameron at Nationals, and has since gone on to have an excellent professional career.
Cameron, meanwhile, ran for a year in college before deciding not to pursue a career in track any further. So, at this point, you might be wondering why I’m bringing up his name at all, and why I’m reminding you of that article from eight years ago.
Two months ago, on February 15, 2012, I received a phone call from Cameron’s mom, in which I heard her speak the following words: “Steve, Cameron’s dead.” My life has not been the same since, and it will never be again.
Ah, where to start ….
* * *
Every now and then a hurricane comes through your life. Fast, swift, sudden. Does enormous damage, then moves on.
As the article from eight years ago makes clear, Cameron and I were very close during his high school years. I was as close with him as I’ve been with any athlete I’ve ever coached, any student I’ve ever taught. Year after year, I told stories about him all the time. To this day I’ve never seen anyone pick up hurdling as quickly as he did. In his junior year, he went from never having run track before to finishing second at Junior Olympic nationals in the space of five months. Besides being a gifted athlete, he was a great thinker. He understood the mechanics of hurdling innately, and he rapidly developed a feel for spacing and rhythm and how it all works together with speed and technique. In his last two years of high school, and in the summers, we spent much time together, and formed a very close bond that lasted until the day he died, and that continues to endure beyond the grave.
Cameron was 28 years old. He was living in Texas, near San Antonio. Out of love and respect for the family, I won’t discuss the cause of death. My purpose here is to talk about my man Cam, as I knew him, and as I know him. He was, and remains, a beautiful man.
Throughout the time I knew him in high school, he didn’t fit the typical mold of a stand-out athlete. He was quiet, sensitive, didn’t brag about himself or his accomplishments. He was more a computer nerd and video gamer than anything else. I remember he could build computers by himself, without any schooling or reading on the subject. All he needed was the right parts, and he could put it together. That ability to “put things together” is what made him such a great hurdler. Cameron didn’t see “parts.” He saw a picture in his mind, and the parts went where they belonged. In the hurdles, the “parts” consisted of a lead leg, a trail leg, a lean, a lead arm, a trail arm, etc. Cameron was the type whose mind moved so fast that he grew bored easily. He gravitated toward the hurdles because they challenged him mentally. With a lane of ten hurdles in front of him, there was an endless supply of new ideas to consider when trying to figure out how to get over them and to the finish line faster. In hurdle-talk we identify some hurdlers as power hurdlers, some as speed hurdlers, others as technique hurdlers. Cameron had all three. He was a poet over the hurdles.
* * *
Over the years, Cameron and I stayed in touch on a fairly consistent basis, and he always made it a point to contact me so we could catch up when he was in town. In the last six weeks or so of his life, he and I reconnected in a big way. That’s why I miss the grown-man Cam I knew in those last six weeks even more than the kid I coached back in the day.
There’s always something special about being able to talk with a former student or former athlete on an adult level. It helps me to realize that I had a direct significant impact on someone’s life, and that my presence in that individual’s life made him or her a better person.
With Cam, that was true to an extreme. The 28-year-old Cam was a man I could talk with on a multitude of topics, and the level of thought was very high. He asked me to suggest some books for him to read by African-American authors, and I emailed him a list that included Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Alex Haley, and others. In phone conversations we talked a lot about spiritual matters, delving deeply into eastern traditions of Zen Buddhism and Taoism and relating it to western traditions of Christianity and, specifically, the story of Jesus. He talked about scientific matters that were way over my head but were quite intriguing. And everything with Cameron found its way back to Egypt, as he was enthralled with that period of ancient history. His actual given name was Chephren. He was named after an Egyptian pharaoh. And he was in the process of connecting with that element of his identity. Like most of us once we reach a certain age, he was trying to figure out who he was meant to be in this life. I felt eager to help him on this new path toward self-knowledge. It was fascinating for me to hear how his ideas had developed, how this video-gamer addicted to television sitcoms had become a thinking, thoughtful, aware human being who truly wanted to make a difference in the world.
As we talked I recalled a time from the summer track after his junior year when I had come by his house to pick him up for practice. I was already running late and was hurrying to get moving. When I arrived at the house and beeped my horn, he came out and said, quite nonchalantly and not yet dressed in his running gear, “I’m finishing up a video game. Come on in.” I was so angry I got back in my car and told him to be ready in two minutes or else I would leave without him. He made it in time.
He had come a long way since then.
A week prior to his death, he flew in for a visit. He came in on a Friday, and took me out to dinner. The following morning we went to an indoor track meet together where a handful of my athletes were competing. When he texted me to say that he had arrived at the airport and was driving into town in his rental car, I told him I could meet him somewhere, but that it would probably be more convenient for me if he could stop by my house and we could go out somewhere from there. He told me he was going to stop by his mom’s house first, but that there was no doubt he come pick me up. “I come to you,” he said, and I could hear the deep respect in that remark. An extended version would have been, “You’re the Teacher, you’re the Coach, so you don’t have to meet me halfway. I come to you.”
In our dinner conversation, he explained in further detail why he quit track after his freshman year of college. He summed it up in three words: “You weren’t there.” He went on to explain it wasn’t as much fun anymore, that just leaving the dorm room to go to practice became a chore. “You don’t understand, McGill,” he said, “you’re the reason I even went on for track to begin with. All these guys were telling me ‘McGill is so cool, McGill’s the man. Cam you should run track ‘cause McGill’s the coach.’ I was like, ‘Who is this McGill guy? I gotta find out who this dude is.’ Then when I started running for you it was like, ‘I can see it now, I can see what everybody’s talking about.’ You were so laid-back. But you cared. And you cared about each one of us individually. We didn’t get that anywhere else. So what I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t McGill the coach who was so cool. It was you.”
I’ve been alive on this earth for 45 going on 46 years. Through the years, I’ve been blessed with two great parents, three great siblings, a great wife, a great daughter, a great stepson, a handful of great mentors and counselors, dozens of great friends, and hundreds of great students and athletes. But I can’t remember a time when anyone ever said anything to me that moved me as deeply as the things Cameron said to me as recorded in the above paragraph. Listening to him talk, I finally got who I was. I finally got what makes me special. I finally saw myself, clearly, from the viewpoint of another. And the thing about it was, he said it so matter-of-factly, as if it were so obvious, that he wasn’t even paying me a compliment. He was just making a simple observation. And that’s what made it so powerful, so undeniable, and one of the most inspiring, humbling moments of my life.
At the track meet the next morning, he watched with me as the two female hurdlers I was coaching warmed up. Meanwhile, a male hurdler who was warming up beside them kept doing a funky sort of movement with his lead arm. He would lock the elbow then swing the arm across his body as if he were trying to swat a fly. Cam and I made eye contact the first time he did it and I just shook my head. I make it a policy not to give tips to hurdlers from other teams out of respect for their coach, unless it’s after the race, and they come to me. But Cameron’s not me, and he had no need to follow any rules of coaching etiquette. After the kid’s third warm-up rep, Cameron walked up to him and gave him some tips on how to fix that lead arm motion. He instructed him to keep the elbow bent and to move it in an up-and-down motion instead of swinging it across his body. He basically said exactly what I would have said. The kid thanked him, did another warm-up rep, and looked noticeably better.
I said to him, “Damn Cam, you should be a coach.” He laughed it off, but the gleam in his eye told me the idea wasn’t far-fetched. Later in the meet he said that he hadn’t been at a track meet in so long, and that watching all these races was getting him amped up to make a comeback. He said it half-jokingly, and I half-jokingly replied, “It’s still not too late. If you wanna do it, you know where I am.”
It was a fun day. The last time I spent time with Cam. How fitting that it was at a track meet. Yet it makes it hard for me to even be at track meets anymore, because that’s where the waves of sorrow hit me the hardest. Every time I see a kid with a technical flaw, I want to turn to Cam and say, “Man, did you see that kid’s trail leg? Go help him with that.” But Cam’s not there.
* * *
The funeral took place in Texas. Then, two days later, on Saturday February 26th, a memorial service was held in Raleigh. Cam’s mom Kim asked me to deliver the eulogy. Actually, she had asked me during the same phone conversation in which she told me of his death. About the second or third thing she said to me was, “We want you to do the eulogy. No one knew him like you did.” I didn’t want to do it, yet I desperately wanted to do it. I accepted her invitation, although at the time I had no idea what I was going to say.
During my morning runs in the next week or so, the speech gradually came to me, and I started piecing it together. The biggest message I wanted to deliver was that by no means, under any circumstances, did I want Cam to “rest in peace.” To think of death as an eternal rest has never made any sense to me, and to wish for someone as restless and searching as Cam to rest eternally seemed downright thoughtless. So, in my eulogy, which I delivered as an open letter to Cam, I told him that while I wanted him to find peace, I didn’t want him to rest. I told him I wanted him to keep searching, keep fighting, keep exploring, keep questioning. I told him we still have a race to run, so “grab your starting blocks, grab your spikes, and let’s go.”
It was a day that many years as a teacher, standing in front of classrooms full of students, had prepared me for, and I do believe I lived up to the moment. But with Cam gone, I don’t know how much it matters one way or the other.
* * *
Another of my former athletes, Joe Coe, class of 2003, read a poem at the service. Kim had sent me a link to the poem, “A Hopi Prayer,” the night before, and I sent it to Joe, who memorized it on his drive down from Richmond, VA, then read it beautifully, with a tremendous depth of feeling.
Back in the day, Joe was a sophomore during Cameron’s senior year. Joe had moved to Raleigh from the mean streets of Baltimore, and was angry all the time. He was the scowling-est brother I’d ever seen. But he had a heart. He was in my Creative Writing class and my American Literature class, so I saw the full spectrum of his personality. And man, did he look up to Cameron. I can remember practice sessions when Joe would watch everything Cam was doing over the hurdles and try to duplicate it. Of course, he didn’t even come close. But Joe was a warrior. He just kept coming with relentless effort, and gradually, though he never reached Cam’s level, he did become a sub 15.0 110m hurdler despite being only 5-9.
But what was most riveting about Joe was his leadership ability. In Joe’s years, our school team had its reign of dominance in the hurdles. Joe played football in the fall, and he convinced a lot of talented football players to come out for track, and he convinced some of the best of them to run the hurdles. It was hard to say no to Joe. His personality was so forceful, and his sincerity was so real. You feared him and loved him at the same time.
We were five deep in the boys hurdles back then, and although Joe wasn’t the only reason why, he was the main reason. He was such a good motivator that having him around was like having another coach on the team. I remember at the state meet one year, one of our girl hurdlers was having a meltdown before her hurdle race because she had done poorly in the long jump. I was busy running around all over the place and couldn’t find her. Then I saw her sitting at the edge of the back of the field where the team tents were set up, her head buried between her knees. I said to Joe, “Handle that, man. Get her right.” He nodded and said, “I got you Coach.” I don’t know what he said or what he did, but she came back and ran a great hurdle race.
So, the day after the memorial service, I was in a very dark place. The high of delivering the eulogy had worn off, and I didn’t feel like doing anything. I realized that the prospect of delivering the eulogy had been keeping me going for the past ten days, that the prospect of helping others with their grief had been helping me to deal with my own. Or maybe it had just been holding back my own. Now that the moment was over, I felt so deflated. Cameron was dead. He was never coming back. I would never see him again.
I did run that morning, but then went back to bed, and stayed there.
Then Joe texted me around noon. Said he would be in town one more day and wanted a chance to talk. My first reaction was to ignore the text. I was determined to wallow in my misery. But then I said fuck it, let’s do something. He came by an hour later and picked me up and drove to a nearby track where I knew we wouldn’t get kicked off and where I knew there’d be hurdles out. Trust me, that’s a hard combination to find around here.
We set up a few hurdles with close spacing at the lowest height, then raised them up to 33 inches, then 36. Joe hadn’t gone over any hurdles in years, and I hadn’t done much either. Back in Joe’s high school days, before a stress fracture in my tibia ended my capacity to do speed-intensive hurdle workouts, I worked out with the hurdlers as often as I could. Showing them what to do instead of just telling them sped up the learning curve, and kept me in direct contact with my greatest passion. So here Joe and I were, a good eight and a half years after his graduation, doing what we used to do back in the day. Yes the hurdles were lower, and they were spaced closer together, but the spirit remained the same. We were hurdling in memory of our man Cam, in memory of our lost brother. We were hurdling with sadness in our hearts, with tears in our eyes. Lead with the knee, deep lean from the lower back. Keep it tight. No wasted motion.
* * *
Forty minutes after finding out that Cameron Akers was dead, I had a class to teach. I wanted to go home. But I wanted to stay. I stopped by my principal’s office and told him the news. He remembered Cameron. He offered to let me leave and assured me he could find coverage for my classes. I thanked him, but decided not to accept. A Teacher has to teach. I remember walking into my sixth period class, sitting behind my desk, putting down my water bottle and books and just staring into space. The bell rang to begin class and I still sat there staring. Finally one of my students asked, “Are you okay?” I looked at her, took a sip of water and said, “No, I’m not.” I knew then that I had to explain what had happened, that I couldn’t go forward with the prescripted lesson plan.
I told them about Cam, then I spent the rest of the period going around the room, telling each individual student something about themselves that I had observed that impressed me. My comments weren’t about them as students, nor as writers, but as people. I focused on their character. The part of them that is genuine. I focused on their essence – who they are behind the masks, behind the academic pressures, behind the essays they write, the sports they play, and all that other stuff that clouds their authenticity. That’s what Cameron had done for me. I had tears in my eyes the whole time. And when it was time to leave, when the bell rang to end class, nobody got up.
When they finally did, and the next class filed in, the incoming students whispered questions about what was going on. “You’ll find out,” I overheard one of the sixth period students say. And they did. I did the same thing with seventh period that I had just finished doing with the previous class. I went around the room telling people how beautiful they were and explaining it to them in practical terms that they could understand and couldn’t deny. The reaction was the same. Silence. Reverence. Acknowledgment that something significant had just taken place.
If a class is really good, if the students and teacher are really connecting, the bell should always catch you by surprise.
* * *
A couple days later, my seventh period class entered the room rather hyper. It was a Thursday morning. On Tuesdays and Thursdays our school has a reversed schedule in which the afternoon classes take place in the morning, and the morning classes take place in the afternoon. Don’t ask me why. So this particular day was apparently National Pancake Day, and as soon as I hit the door the students eagerly yelled to me, “Mr. McGill, it’s National Pancake Day!” Now, I love pancakes like nobody’s business, but believe me when I tell you I didn’t give a damn about any National Pancake Day. I was still in Cam land. I was still struggling to make it through each day, through each class period. Seeing the students so animated about something so trivial just made me want to grab my books and throw them in the air and walk out. The scene drove home to me how distracted we are in modern society, how we have no clue how to be quiet externally or internally. We’re constantly seeking distractions, ways to occupy our minds so that we escape the eternal hell of boredom. What’s the matter with people, I wondered, that we don’t know how to sit still?
“Class outside,” I said. I dropped my books on the desk and walked out of the room, down the hallway, toward the track. If they followed me, they followed me. If not, so be it. But I wasn’t looking back. I had to get out of that building because I felt like I was trapped in a cage.
They followed me. I slowed down so some of the stragglers could catch up. And we walked toward the track more or less together. Once out there, we stood in the middle of the straight-away and I instructed the students to form a circle. I then told them to close their eyes and listen to the sounds that they heard externally, and to the thoughts they heard internally. Just be still and listen.
Weirdly, oddly, strangely, wondrously, they did it. They closed their eyes and stood still. Nobody peeked to see if anyone was cheating. Everyone got into the zone and stayed there. After ten minutes, once a meditative silence had pervaded the group and a calm yet vibrant energy reigned, I spoke. I don’t remember the details of what I said, but I spoke about Cam, about my own life and some of the decisions I’ve made regarding the kind of person I want to be. I encouraged them to remember this moment, to remember how it felt to be calm, quiet, still. I urged them to live meaningful lives, to not allow themselves to settle for being ordinary people. We walked a lap around the track before going inside. I remember hearing the squawk of the crows in the trees, the soft wind whistling through the newborn leaves. I felt better.
* * *
One of my students, Elisabeth Schricker, a junior, wanted to learn how to hurdle. Perhaps it was because of all my talk about Cam, or maybe it was because of the positive influence I had had upon her throughout the year as her teacher. I don’t know. But she asked me if I would teach her how to hurdle. This was about a week after Cam died. Elisabeth, or Schrick, as she is commonly called, is a distance runner on our track team. Runs a 5:40 mile. Has no aspirations to become a hurdler. But she wanted to try. And when I’m asked to teach someone how to hurdle, I never say no. I told her to meet me on the track after school, since I was going to be out there anyway with a couple other athletes.
It was raining. I got out there late due to an extended tutorial session. When I saw the rain falling I almost didn’t go out there at all. But I did, and my athletes had already started their workout – six 150’s, if I recall correctly. They were about halfway through the set, and Schrick was running some intervals as well. A little while later, after my athletes had finished their workout and Schrick had finished hers, I asked her if she still wanted to try hurdling. She nodded her head and said, “Yes, definitely.”
I’d been half-hoping she’d say no. The rain was coming down harder and I hadn’t had time to change out of my school clothes. I was wearing a jacket, which helped a little bit, but I was getting wetter and colder by the minute.
“Okay, I said, “let’s give it a shot.”
I set up a hurdle at 30 inches and told her to get over it, any way any how. That’s how I always start with beginners – get over the fear first then I’ll start teaching technique.
She ran up to it and stopped, then jogged back to the start line. She did this about ten times before I said “wait a minute” and took the crossbar off the hurdle and rested it against the bottom part. Now it was about 24 inches high. “Let’s try it now.”
She got over it this time, shouted out a “Yes!” with a smile beaming on her face, jogged back to the start line and did it again. And again. And again. After about six successful attempts I asked her if she wanted me to put the crossbar back on. “Yes!” she said, “I think I can do it now.”
She tried it again at 30 inches, and this time cleared it with ease. She had gotten over the fear. Her technique was actually improving too, without me giving her any advice. I could see that she didn’t really want any. She was just having fun hurdling. And that, I noted to myself, is how it should be.
One of her teammates, Kyla Babson, was running around the track, and Schrick grabbed her and said, “Come on Kyla, you have to learn how to hurdle. This is so much fun!”
Kyla was like “No way!” but Schrick eventually convinced her to give it a try.
I started her off the same way I started off Schrick. Took off the crossbar and rested it against the bottom part. She hesitated even at this very low height. But Schrick kept encouraging her, told her that she had gone through the same thing, that she could do it too. Kyla did finally get over the very low hurdle, did a few reps over it, then, again with Schrick’s encouragement, agreed to try it again with the crossbar back on the hurdle.
She started and stopped maybe a dozen times. Meanwhile Schrick had set up her own lane consisting of two hurdles and was running over them continuously. Distance-runner style. Jog back, go again. Jog back, go again. She was in the zone.
Kyla, it looked like, wasn’t going to make it over the 30-inch hurdle. But then, just about when I was about to say Hey, it’s okay, hurdling isn’t for everybody, she ran up to it and jumped over it.
She raised her arms in triumph, shouted, “I did it! I did it!”
Schrick ran up to her and hugged her. The two of them were dancing in the rain as Kyla kept shouting “I did it! I did it!”
I too was smiling and laughing, even as the rain was squishing into my shoes and dripping into my eyes. All I could think about was my man Cam, and how he was the only person I knew who would have appreciated this moment. So pure. So innocent. So real.
* * *
More recently, after one of our spring track practices, I set up a two hurdles at 36 inches and did some drills, trying to give my body a greater understanding of the style that I teach. I was feeling good and getting in some good reps. The track was crowded that day. There was a lacrosse game going on in the infield and many of my athletes were hanging around after practice chillin’. But I had peace in my lane, and wasn’t paying much attention to anything going on around me.
Schrick came over and politely asked if she may set up a hurdle or two, as she had done several times since that day in the rain in February. I was in lane five. There were already some hurdles set up in lane eight from my hurdlers’ practice. “You can use those,” I said.
“Okay!” she said, then lowered them from 33 to 30 inches, and got going.
She was going over her hurdles. I was going over mine. Between my reps I’d watch hers and give her small tips after each one. She eagerly soaked up the knowledge. When I’d go she’d watch and ask me questions about things I was doing. “I notice that when you go over the hurdle you really lean a lot,” she said. “Why’s that?”
“It helps to make the hurdle smaller,” I explained. “When you lean forward, your legs raise, so that they’re already above the hurdle. Plus you have more speed coming off so you don’t have to try so hard to be fast heading into the next hurdle.”
“Oh okay,” she said, “that makes sense.” Then on her next rep she leaned more deeply, and I could see the difference.
It was just like back in the day with Joe Coe, just like back in the day with Cam. And I understood that this is really what it’s all about. These simple, quiet moments on the track with athletes. The most special moments occur when nobody else even notices that something special is happening. When Cam won regionals, that was my greatest moment as a coach. But as I was going over those hurdles on that unseasonably warm March afternoon, with Schrick two lanes away from me going over her own hurdles, I realized that the moments I missed the most with Cam weren’t “great” moments at all, but simple moments like this, on ordinary days of practice.
At one point, Schrick asked me a question that caught me off guard. “Why don’t you do this more often? You love it so much. Why don’t you hurdle all the time?”
I explained to her about the stress fracture in my tibia. And how, at my age, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong as well. I got two groins I can pull, two hamstrings, two quads, two calves, two achilles. I can’t count on being able to go out there and hurdle whenever I want to.
We were standing about five feet from each other. It was one of those strange moments when we looked into each other’s eyes. I felt like I could trust her with a more authentic answer, so I said to her, “You know Schrick, things in life don’t happen because you deserve them. Things happen because they happen. I’m 45 years old and I’m still able to come out here and do some drills over hurdles. I haven’t done anything to deserve that. I haven’t earned it. It’s a gift. Every rep is a gift.”
“Oh,” she said after a pause, “that’s so true. I never looked at it that way.”
Until I lost my man Cam, neither did I.
© 2012 Steve McGill