Ode to a Mentor

In several articles on this website, I have discussed to one degree or another the importance of the coach/athlete relationship, and how a close relationship with a coach can enable an athlete to achieve things beyond what he or she ever thought him or herself capable. The relationship that Renaldo Nehemiah had with his high school coach Jean Poquette would be the most obvious example of such a bond. Also, in more than one interview that I’ve read, Allen Johnson gives Curtis Frye credit for convincing him he had the potential to be the best in the world when Johnson himself, while still a collegian, was just hoping to make some noise on the national scene. Such mentors not only help us to perform well, but they also provide us with numerous lessons that we can pass onto others as we mature. Perhaps most importantly, such mentors have an influence upon us that lives on long after the brief period of our time together with them, spreading into aspects of our lives that seemingly have nothing to do with track, reminding us in our moments of doubt that miracles can in fact happen, and that no outer forces can limit our ability to accomplish that which we seek to accomplish if we do not limit ourselves. Such mentors, in short, inspire a hope within us that can never be extinguished.

My mentor was Mr. Keeley. As a junior in high school, at the age of sixteen, I first met Mr. Keeley, a white man in his late sixties who had been coaching for a rival school, and had planned on retiring altogether, but accepted a request by our head coach to come help him with the track program at our school. Prior to Mr. Keeley’s arrival, I had already been hurdling for a year, but it was under his tutelage that I became a hurdler.

“Lead with the knee!” He puffed on his cigar, explained to me that I was swinging up my lead leg from the hip, which was causing me to hit hurdles and to lose time in the air. Lead with the knee, he said, let the knee be your steering wheel. By the end of that same practice, I wasn’t hitting hurdles anymore, and I wasn’t sailing in the air. It felt weird. Leading with the knee, I thought to myself, really works.

“You can fool all of the others
Accepting pats on the back as you pass
But there’s one thing you can be sure of:
You can’t fool the man in the glass.”

Mr. Keeley taped that quote to our locker room wall during the latter part of the indoor season of my senior year. I don’t think it was an original quote; I think he got it from somewhere. But it was him, all him. He was not a strict disciplinarian, not a crack-the-whip type of coach. He treated us as adults and expected us to behave accordingly. If you wanted success, and were willing to make the necessary sacrifices for it, Mr. Keeley would do anything to help you achieve it. But if you didn’t care, he didn’t care, and he wouldn’t waste his time on you. A lot of kids thought they were getting over on Mr. Keeley, cutting workouts short, coming up with phantom injuries, etc. But he knew what was going on. In the end, it was only themselves that they let down. For the hurdlers, Mr. Keeley always liked to have us run one 400 at the end of every hurdle workout. Even if we had cleared more than a hundred hurdles in a practice session, we would finish up with a quarter in the 60-second range. I remember one time one of my hurdling teammates sneaked away before the quarter, and when the other two of us lined up to do it, Mr. Keeley asked us where our third teammate had gone. We answered that we didn’t know, that we thought he had gone into the locker room. Mr. Keeley shrugged his shoulders, said “That’s par for the course,” and started us off. The thing about it is, we didn’t mind that our teammate didn’t have to run the quarter with us; we understood that Mr. Keeley’s coaching style was one in which the harder workers continually improved, while the slackers fell by the wayside.

In the end, the teammate who cut the workout short didn’t make the high hurdle final in our conference championship meet, and he was very disappointed. But it was his own fault; he had no one to blame but himself, and he knew it. He knew that if he had done the workouts all season long the way Mr. Keeley had planned them, he’d’ve been in that final. I tried to console him after the semi-final race, but to no avail. “I don’t deserve to be in the final,” he said. All sesason long, he had tried to fool the man in the glass, but the man in the glass had become his ultimate accuser.

About two weeks before that meet, we had a dual meet against our arch-rival, and I had to run against the only kid in the conference who I knew had a chance to beat me in either hurdle event. I beat him convincingly in the highs, running my best race of the year up to that point, and as we walked back to the starting line to find out our times, I extended my hand and congratulated him on a good race. He just grunted at me and kept walking, as if to say I wasn’t worthy of defeating him, and that he would kick my ass the next time we met. I wasn’t angry, just determined that I wasn’t ever going to lose to him, in either the highs or the intermediates. Later in the day, in spite of my new conviction, or, perhaps, because of it, he thoroughly kicked my ass in the intermediates, and the score was even. I was despondent after the intermediate race, as I had a tendency to be highly self-critical and to consume myself with self-doubt after losses. The joy I had felt earlier in the day was gone completely. I had let that cocky, arrogant sonofagun beat me, and I couldn’t forgive myself. Why, I asked myself, did I always have so much trouble finding my rhythm in the intermediates? I didn’t even feel that tired at the end of the race; I just ran a poorly-executed race, stuttering at some hurdles, stretching at others. Afterward, I walked to the far side of the track, the backstretch side, away from my teammates and coaches, where I sat down by myself and sulked and cursed, keeping my head facing the ground. Mr. Keeley – all sixty-something years of him – walked all the way over there, puffing on his cigar every step of the way, and sat down next to me. For about five minutes neither of us spoke a word, but I could feel myself calming down and feeling comforted just because of the mere fact that he was there. Finally, Mr. Keeley took a puff on his cigar and said, “You’ll get ‘im at the champs,” referring to the conference meet that was coming up in a couple weeks. Mr. Keeley’s prophecy did not end up coming true, as I finished a disappointing third in the intermediates at the conference meet. But the fact that he made me believe in myself just by sitting beside me and speaking one sentence . . . that’s what has stayed with me as the years have gone on.

Sometimes when I’m alone, sitting by myself, thinking, I half-way expect to smell the aroma of cigar smoke and hear Mr. Keeley come up from behind me and say, “Don’t forget to lead with the knee, Steve.” I kept in touch with him only for a couple years after I graduated from high school, then I heard from another fellow alum that Mr. Keeley had fallen ill. After that, I tried to call him once or twice, but a recorded voice came on saying that the number was no longer serviceable or something like that. And this was in the days before emails and cell phones, so I basically lost touch with him. I assume that he has passed on, as I am twenty years removed from my high school days, and he would have to be well into his eighties were he still alive.

I remember one day in my junior year I decided I was going to take only seven steps to the first hurdle instead of the normal eight. I thought it was a revolutionary idea that would help me to drop a lot of time off of my personal best. During Christmas break I worked on lengthening my stride until I had the seven-step approach down pat. Then when we got back to school I eagerly showed Mr. Keeley my new ground-breaking seven-step approach, but instead of sharing in my excitement, he puffed on his cigar and said, “Why are you doing that? Go back to eight.” I angrily shuffled back to the starting line without looking at him, but I followed his orders, although reluctantly, with attitude, planning the whole time to change back to seven as soon as he wasn’t looking. But the eight felt a lot smoother than the seven-step approach. That’s when I said to myself, Okay this guy knows what he’s doing. From now on when he says do something, I won’t get mad, I’ll just do it. In the two years that he coached me, we never got into an argument, and that incident was about as close as we ever came.

That’s how it was with Mr. Keeley. I would do anything he told me to do; I trusted him completely. Back then, I didn’t realize how rare people like him are, and how rare relationships like that are.

In the summer after my senior year, I ran summer track in an attempt to improve upon my pr before entering college. The coach I ran for that summer was someone who, as my dad put it, “worked ya to death but didn’t teach ya nothin’.” In other words, he had us run a whole lot of 400’s, 300’s, 200’s, and all that fun stuff but he didn’t teach us anything about running form. Also, whereas Mr. Keeley would always monitor, from workout to workout, and sometimes even during a workout, how much recovery we should take between reps and how hard we should go during the reps, my summer coach would just make us go all out all the time, and he never varied the recovery time. Consequently, although I was running very hard in practice, I didn’t feel like I was getting any better, and I wasn’t gaining any confidence. And certainly, as a hurdler, I felt like I was regressing because I wasn’t doing any hurdle workouts, as all of our training sessions were quarter-mile based. So I was losing faith in my technique, in my ability to negotiate barriers in the heat of the battle, and to make all the subtle adjustments that are necessary to make through the course of a race.

It was during that summer that I realized just how much I relied on Mr. Keeley to maintain a high level of confidence. As an athlete, I was someone who based my whole outlook on life on how things were going on the track. I was a worrier with a capital W. Mr. Keeley always knew how to calm me down, to help me re-focus, and convince me that I was good enough to attain my goals. He exuded an aura of composure and tranquility, nonchalantly puffing on that cigar all the time. He knew that if I worked hard, that if I did the workouts the way he planned them, the results would come. He expected the results to come, and remained calm and confident if they didn’t come right away.

The summer coach didn’t pay much attention to me, really, because I was hurdler and he didn’t know nor care much about the hurdles. He was a 400/800 man. All that summer I never came within a half-second of my pr. I hit a lot of hurdles, ran a lot of ugly, sloppy races, and felt glad when the summer finally came to a close.

Ironically, I wouldn’t say that Mr. Keeley possessed a vast wealth of knowledge about the hurdles. The only technical thing I learned from him was to lead with the knee. As a result, I had a very quick, snappy lead leg, but I had a lazy trail leg all throughout high school, and never really corrected the problem until the 42’s in college forced me to. Still, I never had another coach whom I trusted the way I trusted him, who could see things in me that I couldn’t see in myself. Just by taking an interest in me, by investing his personal time in my personal development, he helped me to see that there was more to me than there was to the average high school school student, and he helped me to bring that something out, both on and off the track. He cared about me as a person morethan he cared about me as an athlete. He visited me when I was dying. . . .

In late October of my senior year, I was diagnosed with a rare blood disease called Aplastic Anemia. Click on the “Personal Stories” link of this website to find the full story of that event in my life. I stayed in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for three weeks receiving treatment for this potentially fatal disease. The only person who visited me more often than Mr. Keeley during those three weeks was my mom.

A large part of my motivation for becoming a coach was that I wanted to do for others what Mr. Keeley had done for me. I don’t know where in this universe he is right now, and I don’t have any pictures of him or any other forms of memorabilia to remember him by. But I talk to him all the time. I ask him for advice, and I listen silently for his response. Not a day goes by when I don’t, either consciously or subconsciously, repeat to one of my own athletes or students something that he once said to me.

In my mind, I still see him puffing on that cigar, imploring me to lead with the knee. . . .

© 2005 Steve McGill

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