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Thanks, Coach Young

May 3rd, 2019 · No Comments · Baseball, Football, Journalism, Los Angeles, Lutherans, Sports Journalism

It is a cool November night, and I don’t know it yet, but I am sprawled on my back at the Cal State Los Angeles football field.

Above me, a rectangular patch of vision switches on inside my facemask. On the fringes, darkness broken up by banks of electric lights. In the center, dominating the scene, the smiling face of my coach, Jim Young, leaning over me, staring into my eyes and saying: “Obe! We thought you were dead!”

I had been significantly concussed, and I may have had a moment or two of seizures that sometimes come with concussions and make them look scarier than they already are.

Minutes earlier, I had recovered a game-opening onside kick for my school, Los Angeles Lutheran. It had not occurred to me that the play was already dead because my knee had touched the ground. Too much NFL, I guess, where play is ended only when “down by contact.”

My bright idea was to lurch forward a yard or two before our opponents from Pater Noster arrived, and I rose up just as a teammate attempted to hurdle me, kicking me in the back of the head, I later was told.

Whiplash. Concussion. I never felt a thing. I was “out” for more than a few seconds. Smelling salts brought me around. Lots of aspirin helped me past the headaches and blackouts that followed for the next month. My football career was over, but I have a fuzzy memory of footballs sailing high in the air, launched by our quarterback, caught by our speedy wide receivers, that led to a 28-20 upset victory.

Looking back, I could have taken literally Coach Young’s enthusiastic welcome of my return to the Land of the Conscious. Maybe it had been scarier to watch than to experience. But I immediately knew he was trying to reassure me. “You’re here. We are with you. See, we can joke about this.”

Six years ago I posted on this blog an entry about a gym teacher/coach I encountered while attending L.A. Lutheran, from 1967 to 1971. A memorable individual, certainly.

It has struck me numerous times, since, that it was another coach who was a greater inspiration, and not just to me but most everyone who played varsity baseball or football in the 1970-71 year at our gone (but not forgotten) school.

That would be Jim Young, 1964 LHS alumni, second-year athletic director (back then), two-sport head coach and one of the first adults to ask my opinion.

In my mind, Coach Young is forever a mid-20s bundle of energy and enthusiasm, running practices and putting us through drills, but after seven years as a coach and teacher at LHS, he went to seminary and in 1980 was ordained a minister in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

He retired early last year, after nearly four decades of being “Pastor James Young”, and he must have reached, on a personal and ecclesiastical level, far more people than he did while coaching at a school of 500 kids four decades ago.

His interactions with kids, however, certainly were appreciated by most of us. Young people, young men, often see adult behavior modeled by their teachers and coaches, and Jim Young may have touched other kids the same way he reached me. With kindness and patience leading to fondness and respect.

Let us move to some bullet-points of the “Coach Jim Young” experience.

–He was the only person to call me a “hamburger.” He never used bad language. That may strike people as nearly impossible, in 2019, but he managed it. He did, however, have a word that conveyed his disappointment at a blown assignment or a missed sign. That word was “hamburger.”

You can imagine my confusion, when I first heard him use the word. As a 17-year-old kid, do you actually want to be a hamburger? Maybe. Hamburgers are tasty. Ah, but now we have context. with him shouting across the field in a certain tone of voice. Hamburger, then, was a four-letter word — albeit one of the mildest ever invented. It meant: “You need to pay attention.” With profanity’s sting replaced by fatherly attention.

–Coach Young seemed aged to the kids on campus by dint of being head coach and athletic director. Those are positions of authority and “old” people usually hold them. Hence, he was old. But he had been a student in the LHS class of 1964, making him 24 or 25 and all of seven years older than were we Class of ’71 seniors. The reality was, he had all the energy and enthusiasm of the kids around him.

–Perhaps we should have picked this up via vibrations from our elders, but I had no idea till fairly recently that Coach Young played on LHS teams that won CIF-Southern Section titles in baseball (spring of 1963) and football (fall of 1964). A CIF title is a big thing; it was even bigger when fewer of them were awarded, like in the 1960s.

–Coach Young was distinctive-looking. His dark hair was always cut quite short. He may have done it himself. Just up and over, with the clippers, and done! He seemed mostly arms and legs, and easily stood on the tall side of 6-foot, and we could see how he had been a college athlete, as well, at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. He was a receiver there, catching passes from Kenneth Ebel, a teammate of his at LHS; thus, the two of them played on the same football teams for eight consecutive years.

–He was a relentlessly cheerful guy, and he took up a lot of space in any room by his presence, his voice, his jibes. However, I never feared him, and many prep football coaches (in particular) project an authoritarian image. But at no time did I doubt that he commanded the respect of the guys on his teams. A tricky path to navigate but one he did with ease, seemingly.

–At times, when the smog in the Inglewood area (where LHS was located) became lung-searing, I entrusted Coach Young with my inhalator. No. Really. In case I, an asthmatic, needed it. Kind of a sissy thing, for sure, walking over to the coach and saying, “Could you hold this for me?” But I couldn’t carry an inhalator onto the field, could I? And Coach Young had pockets.

–He instituted attention-grabbing “silent calisthenics” for the football team, a small but significant addition to the pre-game program. Just before kickoff, the 30-35 players lined up and did quick sets of jumping jacks — without any counting. Without any voices at all. The only sound was the “thud” of hands slapping thigh pads in rhythm. It was fun to be part of, and if the “silent cals” intimidated anyone on the other sideline, better yet.

–He organized the 1971 baseball team in such a way that some racial barriers were broken. I entered a black person’s house for the first time. A few weeks later, black kids entered my house for the first time.

It didn’t seem revolutionary in any way when Coach Young described his plan: Players would ask their parents if they would host a team dinner, and then everyone would go to that kid’s house for a meal the night before a game. The Los Angeles area, in 1971, was much less ethnically diverse than it is now, and a half-dozen black kids pulling up at my house … or a bunch of white kids walking up to Andy Jackson’s door … would not be something a person would see every day.

It was Coach Young’s idea, and it was only a few years ago that I realized how important that was. He had further normalized the relationships of the kids on his team, in his school.

–He gave up coaching in 1976, with a CIF baseball title (1973) on his coaching resume, as well as a runner-up finish in CIF football (1975). He returned to school in Nebraska and, in 1980, was ordained minister in the LCMS. He retired in January of 2018, after 38 years as a pastor, the final 32 at Grace Lutheran in Escondido, California.

–Everything I recall about Coach Young … it feels almost as crisp and new as if it happened yesterday. Though he cannot possibly feel the same way, given that he led many other teams and, later, large congregations. He has much to remember; when it comes to my dealings with him, it is a period of just nine months.

I am thankful that Coach Young was running things when I was attempting to break into sports teams. He was not a guy who insisted that every senior should have been in the program for four years or participate in some off-season league. The school had all sorts of three-sport athletes, a wonderful notion now rarely seen. Everyone got a chance, even the guy who didn’t go out for a sports team until he was a junior.

That was important because until the spring of 1970, I had never played an organized game. In any sport. My brothers and the neighborhood kids played (and played and played) whatever sport was in season, but that was informal, if fairly intense. If I was known for anything in high school, it was for scores on standardized tests. But I was a huge sports fan and hoped to demonstrate to myself that I could be a vaguely competent high-school athlete.

(What helped was several summers of two-vs.-two over-the-line games on the asphalt of the elementary school near my home in Long Beach. We would go for hours, and my role was to play the “infielder” position, which essentially was third base. Thus, I may have inadvertently approached the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours threshold by the time I was 16.)

I was a good enough fielder, even on dirt or grass, that I was allowed to stick around the baseball program and sent to play with the JVs. I fell in with several excellent freshmen, including left-hander Bob Goodyear, who was nearly unhittable (six no-hitters, a CIF-Southern Section record). We went 20-0 and the JVs beat the varsity in a practice game during the Easter break.

(On that team I was something of an elder statesman, as one of only two juniors on the team. I might have been the only guy with a driver’s license, and I definitely was the only guy who had a license and a Volkswagen van. I routinely drove three or four teammates to road games. Imagine the legal exposure, circa 2019.)

Anyway, Coach Young would have been aware of the talent ready to break through — and I mean the guys who were going to be sophomores. But, yes, also the third baseman who was “JV defensive player of the year.”

That perhaps led to him showing some interest in me for football season, as a senior. I have a memory of him asking me if I were going to try the sport. I said yes. I had good hands, at least as baseball went, and was a bit bigger than the average kid, and Coach Young was encouraging me.

He decided to try me at tight end. I was a bust. Never had I seen passes thrown as hard as they were by the senior quarterback, Dennis Doescher, and I caught very few of them. I surprised myself at how bad I was at running routes and catching a football.

I soon was moved to offensive tackle, a skill-position failure.

At that point, I was behind a junior at OT, and it looked like I would be a backup for my one and only season. But then (as I recall it), the junior OT joined the school’s choir for a TV appearance and missed a practice. An old rule: Don’t practice, don’t play.

After losing two road games, we won Game 3, with me starting at right tackle, and maybe Coach Young just decided to play the guys who had won — including the senior lineman with nearly no observable football technique and a significant lack of blood-thirstiness.

We lost two more games to fall to 1-4, one of them by 48-6, and the previous year’s 2-7 looked repeatable. I wonder if Coach Young about then had any doubts about this “interscholastic sports coach” thing. But then we reeled off four victories, including a season-ending upset of a Pater Noster team that had two UCLA recruits at defensive tackle. Massive guys, and I would have to block one of them. “Luckily,” I was knocked cold on the opening play and a junior named Danny North apparently did a fine job in my absence.

It was our best game, with Coach Young unleashing a deep passing game that we perhaps should have employed more often, even in an age of ground-pounding wishbone formations. We had a very good quarterback and two deep-threat, track-star wide receivers. Pater Noster could not cover them. No one on our schedule could have. We finished 5-4, and 5-2 in the Olympic League. A solid season.

For a month or so after that, I had concussion-related blackouts just getting out of bed and I didn’t start throwing a baseball until it was nearly time for practice to begin.

I almost immediately hurt my arm — throwing too much before it was back in shape. It never really quieted down. What followed was a season in which our coach and our ace pitcher and the ace pitcher’s often exasperated father had no idea if the formerly dependable third baseman could get the ball to first base with any sort of accuracy. The answer? Not quite.

But Coach Young left me in the lineup, at third. It wasn’t entirely charity. I was a pretty good pre-game prayer guy, and I had that job the final half of the season. I also had a sort of parlor trick — or so it seemed to some of my teammates — of being able to remember what each opposing batter had done in previous at-bats and would loudly announce it as opponents came up to bat. “Popped to you last time, Vernon! Flew to right first time!” Stuff like that. Plus, we were doing pretty well, even with the third baseman with the sore shoulder. And I was starting to hit a little.

I didn’t kill the team (more than once or twice), and with the help of a pair of basketball guys who came out late (including Larry Reynolds, future Long Beach State basketball coach), we were playing for a share of the Olympic League championship on the final day of the regular season, May 11, 1971.

Coach Young moved me up to fifth that day, the highest I ever was posted in the batting order, and I somehow managed a hit (a double, perhaps?) against Pater Noster’s ace, a kid named Farr, and worked my way over to third with one out and Coach Young a few feet from me, in the coaching box.

We were behind 3-2 and it was the fourth inning, thereabouts, and Coach Young made a bold decision.

At practices, he had gone over “signs” he might send during a game. Covert messages to hitters and runners. Steal, bunt, hit-and-run, etc. Signs are as old as baseball.

Coach Young did not micro-manage games, but we needed to watch him, just in case. So, while on third base, I was watching him flash signs toward the batter, our junior catcher, and I saw the coach go to the “indicator” — a signal (in this case, pulling on the brim of his cap) that the following sign was to be acted upon.

It was a call for a squeeze play. One of the highest risk-reward plays in the game. I would take off toward home as the pitcher began his wind-up and the batter would bunt. If the ball hit the ground in fair territory I would score easily, and we would be tied — and maybe headed for the CIF playoffs. Unfortunately, the batter popped up his bunt, barely higher than his head. The catcher caught the ball and threw back to third base — to double me off the bag.

End of inning. We lost 6-2.

Can’t fault Coach Young for the squeeze play. It was a daring call in a big game. I had no foot speed and, otherwise, the ball would have to get out of the infield for me to score.

Our record was 11-3 in the league, 13-6-1 overall. The team that beat us on that final day reached the CIF 1A title game.

(I remember much of this game stuff because I was covering sports for the LHS newspaper, which led to 40 years in sports journalism and a more-than-occasional reconsideration of my school’s athletic comings and goings back in the early 1970s. Yes, it’s a bit freakish.)

Toward the end of the season, Coach Young made an interesting comment. It was just the two of us, which didn’t happen much. He was talking about motivating players, and I was listening. Of our shortstop, Doescher, he said: “I know that if I ask him to do something today he might not do it; but he will tomorrow.” I may have nodded. Then he added: “But I can’t figure you out.” I was puzzled: What needed figuring out? Ultimately, I took it as a sort of compliment; we all like to be mysterious. But I wasn’t hiding anything. I backed him 100 percent, I tried my best, and sometimes that wasn’t good enough. And my arm hurt.

At the awards banquet, just ahead of graduation, Coach Young awarded me a trophy that read “Co-captain, 1971”. I was quite surprised. I did not expect a trophy of any sort, and the idea that a man I respected thought I had shown some leadership … well, I was proud and moved.

The following year, Coach Young and the stars who were by then juniors got to the CIF 1A title game before losing to Saint Genevieve … and in 1973 Bob Goodyear had an ERA of 0.08, allowing one earned run all season. Coach Young and his kids beat Buckley 1-0 for the CIF 1A championship. I was pleased for them.

Meanwhile, in just a few seasons Coach Young had shown he could lead successful teams — and a successful athletic program, including a soccer team (in 1970!) and several girls teams, back when not everyone was doing that.

But within a few years, he apparently was thinking of a different approach to promoting ethics and morals — and getting face to face with believers (as well as non-believers) of all ages.

In 2011, Pastor James Young talked about his decision to become a minister, to lead a church and not just an athletic department.

“I was a high school football and baseball coach, and I was enjoying that,” he told the San Diego Reader. “But I got a sense that among high school kids, their time frame was now and 10 minutes from now. I really wanted to have the passion to impact their lives on a longer term. So, I began to do Bible studies and small group discussions with the kids, and I was led to do youth ministry …”

And to embark on the road to being ordained.

Pastor Young knows far more than I do about the best way to reach people on a spiritual basis. As a lifelong Lutheran, I have known pastors who were in the ministry for decades and often stayed at the same church for generations. Many of us were very happy with that sort of arrangement, which encompassed big stretches of congregants’ lives and many major life moments, not just a couple of years in high school.

My sense is that Coach Young reached a lot of kids, including this one, 50-some years ago. The school he attended and coached at no longer exists, but a foundation of core values and trust and religious kinship was left behind, after the games stopped, in the hearts of many teens.

And I still see a smiling face, looking down on me, as the darkness of that football field returned to light.

Note: Many thanks to Kenneth Ebel, retired professor of biology at Concordia University, Irvine, who was Jim Young’s teammate for eight years in the 1960s and remains his close friend. Thanks also to Betty Young, Jim’s wife and also an LHS 1964 alum, who helped me (via Ebel) understand how Coach Young became Pastor Young, in the latter 1970s, and cleared up some questions about her husband’s prep career.

Any errors of fact in this item are my responsibility.

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