I was recently at a football clinic in southern Illinois. For those unfamiliar, a football clinic is a gathering of coaches from all over that are lectured to, discuss, and dissect the game of football for a couple of days. It’s a great opportunity to learn new techniques, new methods, as well as share a few beers with fellow coaches and renew friendships. Lots of testosterone in the room among the younger coaches. The older guys, well, we’re there to learn, talk amongst ourselves, and revel in the fact that most of us, either current or former head coaches don’t really have to climb the ladder any longer and can simply enjoy the camaraderie that this type of gathering has to offer. If you look at it objectively, a clinic like this really represents the history of a truly American game with all of the variety of coaches, schemes and ages represented. Stories abound of days and games gone by worth remembering. Games are experiences, but sometimes, the experiences are not the games and that is the point of this entry.
     I was enjoying my morning breakfast in the hotel lobby which was rather small by usual standards, with five tables set up containing four chairs each. Upon first arrival, around 7A.M. there was virtually no one there other than a couple of early risers like myself as well as a mounted television blaring political nonsense, weather, and the daily morning news. The sparse crowd was because, no doubt, beer and war stories were flowing the night before. After getting my waffle, coffee, and honey to top my battered treat, I sat alone at the four top nearest the television. Within a few minutes, the room began to fill quite rapidly as coaches were either getting on the road home, or scurrying to attend the next session that was scheduled to start at 8A.M. I got up to throw my garbage out and refill my coffee cup, hoping to save my seat before it was absconded by one of the many in the room. Curiously, no one bothered to ask me about sitting in any of the three empty chairs at my table which I was rather happy about as I quite enjoy my morning solitude and prefer to eat alone. I was soon to find out that there was another reason for the empty chairs.
      As I rose to throw my garbage away I noticed an elderly lady sitting in a lonely chair facing the food line, trying to balance her styrofoam plate on her lap while her cheap styrofoam coffee cup sat precariously on her right side atop a small table. In a room bustling with burly football coaches, she was not only the smallest person in the room, but the most alone. I asked her if she would like to join me at my table for four which was occupied by one. She looked up at me and, I think, was rather shocked by the request, but took me up on it immediately saying “thank you”. I gently took her plate of food and walked the couple of steps to the table, moving one of the gym bags that blocked the chair from being pulled out. I pulled out the chair for her and she had her seat, and I re-sat in mine.
     The conversation started with her asking why I was at that particular hotel. I mentioned the football clinic that I was attending. She then asked me if I was a coach, to which I said that I had been a high school head football coach for fifteen years, a high school coach overall for thirty years and now am coaching football at the college level. I tend to give complete, but sometimes unnecessary answers to simple questions. She responded by telling me that her husband had been a high school coach and teacher and that she also taught for many years but was retired for twenty. Immediately, this told me that she was in her late 70’s or early 80’s. I told her that I’m only a few years from retirement as well and she smiled, saying that I’ll enjoy it. We then proceeded to engage in small talk about the state of education today versus years gone by and with each comment or criticism, she gave a small smile as if to acknowledge that yes, things have changed much over the years. She asked me at midpoint of one of my comments if I was a biker. I said, “How did you know that?”

“Easy. Your tattoo that says ‘Sturgis’ as well as your ring (I wear a Harley-Davidson ring with a small skull on it).”

I told her that people don’t usually notice things like that, especially the ring, or rings, that I wear and that I was impressed that she was so observant. She told me that, “I’m a teacher. We notice everything.” She was more than right. Good teachers, we decided, notice just about everything that is going on in their classroom, and clearly, Sally was no exception. We talked at length about her and her husband’s riding days through Sturgis, the country, and the love of motorcycling that we both share. As the conversation went on, there was no question that she loved every minute of those days gone by, but also loved and was quite devoted to her husband. Each time she mentioned him, her eyes lit up. We rode many of the same places, and discovered that the beauty of those locations had not changed since she and her husband were on the road. As we talked about biking and teaching, she became more alive, more engaged, and we both were having a wonderful time. I asked her where her husband was, thinking he would be down in a few minutes as I was looking forward to meeting him. She related that he was in the local hospital, and had just had heart surgery. He was in his 80’s but he would be fine after the implants were done. She said, “We’ll get a few more years, I hope” and smiled. I told her that a woman with her determination and strength would be blessed and that certainly she and her husband would get those years. We talked more about riding but time was running short as the other coaches I was with had now come down the stairs and were ready to get back to the clinic. I reached out my hand and said, “I’m Mike DiMatteo and it was a pleasure, truly, to meet you”. She responded with,

“My name is Sally, and I want you to know that I needed this. Today, you saved me. You’re my guardian angel”

I told her that maybe we saved each other. See, as she and I were talking I was reawakened to the fact that this life is so short, that we have to truly try and savor those moments that we can with those that we love or those that impact us. If you really examine it, life is made up of small experiences and to disregard those experiences is to miss the marrow that makes up life. It is those experiences that add the flavor to what we are, and teach us to appreciate what we have, no matter how small it is. I found myself wanting to get back home to my wife so that I could hug her, to my kids so that I could see them, just as Sally was waiting for her husband of fifty-three years. I found myself wanting to get back on the road so that I could see all that is out there! It all seems so cliche, but the fact is that it isn’t. We are granted a finite amount of time, and isn’t that what history is? An accounting of time? How have I accounted for mine? How have you accounted for yours? If we are the sum of our decisions, what do we equal? 

As I rose to leave, I reached out to give Sally a hug and she hugged me back. I don’t think that I was as much a guardian angel as Sally was mine.