Even though the Texas heat hung thickly in the air, the icy prickles of anxiety within me were so intense that it felt as though old man winter had taken up residence in my chest. I had been assured by several people that the man I was about to meet was very nice, but at that point, I knew him only by reputation.
I had never been anywhere else that held high school football in such high esteem, it was almost like a religion. Our head high school football coach had more wins in his career than any other coach in our school district, so when I entered his office in my wheelchair that day, I felt a bit like Dorothy before she met the wizard. My heart was racing, and I would have bolted if only I had the ability.
Then he entered the room. “Hello,” he said, with a warm smile. “How can I help you?”
His gaze tried to meet mine, but he was unsuccessful. My eyes were fixed on the floor. “Hey Coach Cripps,” I answered as I did my best to keep my voice steady. “I just joined a sports team for people with cerebral palsy. I want to do well in competition, but I have never worked out formally before. Would you mind writing out some exercises that I might be able to use as a template as I start to design a workout for myself?”
His answer was quick and certain. “I would be happy to do that. Give me some time and I will get back to you soon, okay?
“Thanks, Coach,” my voice was stronger because of his kindness. “I would appreciate anything you can do to get me on the right track.”
The very next day, after Coach Cripps presented me with a complete workout plan, he asked: “Lorraine, do mind if I go through your workout with you as you are doing it?”
I was stunned, then elated. This was so much more than I had expected. I did not know it then, but he would work with me as I trained at least once a day for the remainder of my high school career.
We started in the weight room. Since he didn’t know what I could do in the beginning, he spent some time evaluating my strength and flexibility. Once he got a firm handle on where I was with my fitness, he started to push just a little, then gradually more. As I worked on various machines, his gentle, persistent encouragement started to become the voice in my head. “Come on, Lorraine! You can do this. One more set. Five more reps. Don’t you quit until you have nothing left.”
The two of us spent hours in that weight room. There was something painted on the wall. It was an acronym that I didn’t understand at first. GATA. I knew the coaches said it to the football players often and I knew that the football players said it to each other even more. One day I asked one of the assistant coaches what it meant. The smile never left his face as he explained. “Lorraine, GATA means ‘Get After Their A**! It has been on the wall of the Stratford High School weight room since the beginning of time.” Since Coach Cripps was the only football coach our school ever had, I knew he was responsible for what was on the wall in the weight room. Somehow, that gave me extra motivation.
One day, about six months into our workouts, I told Coach Cripps about the biggest dream that I had at the time. I wanted to represent the United States at the International Games for the Disabled. Coaches from the sports team warned me that I might be too young. But not Coach Cripps. When I told him what I wanted to do, he said, “You can do anything you want to do if you work hard enough. We better work out twice per day during the summers. What do you think?” I was all in and that is exactly what we did. All that hard work paid off. In 1986, At the end of my senior year, at the age of 17, I was one of the thirty-seven athletes selected to represent the United States in the International Games for the Disabled. I believe that dream came true at least in part because Coach Cripps reminded me it was okay to dream big. I learned other lessons from him as well, about sportsmanship and being grateful for every day, and always striving to do my best, no matter what my circumstances. I carry those lessons with me every day. His guidance not only helped me to get stronger physically but to be a stronger person as well.
Fast forward about thirty-five years. September 12th, 2020. I was lying in a hospital bed at Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City and had just received a new medical diagnosis that was a bit scary a few days earlier. I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed when my phone chimed. There was a new message on Facebook from Coach Cripps’ son. Coach Cripps had passed away early that morning. I had heard a few months before that he was not doing well. I kept meaning to reach out. I wanted him to know how much he had changed my life and helped me to grow into the person I am today. The grief was almost more than I could take.
The next few weeks were a blur. On social media, hundreds of people paid tribute. As a football coach this man had mentored so many, he had done so much. I started to wonder how I could honor him. I wanted to do so in a way that was both special and personal.
One day, I was sitting on the patio in front of my house and my eyes fell on some stones I have in my yard. I had an idea. I asked a caregiver to gather about twenty stones and I went inside to get some paint pens from my office. The two of us spent the next several hours writing the word GATA on all the stones. I put them in numerous spots in every room of my house.
These days, when my eye catches a stone that is next to my computer or in a windowsill in my hallway or on top of my microwave, I take a minute to smile and remember the man who believed in me and my ability so strongly. When I have something difficult to do that requires courage, I put one of the stones in my pocket before I leave my house. Occasionally, I just pick one up and take a few moments to remember the message and the man who gave me so much of his time and his love. When I do so I always feel better.
After all, he was my rock for a very long time.