When someone walks into your life, a story begins. Pay attention. Who knows where it will go or how it will end?
I was a transplanted Southerner trying to take root in California, married only six months when my new husband got his first job teaching and coaching at Monterey High.
It would take almost 10 years for him to move from basic math courses and lower-division sports to teaching physics and coaching varsity basketball.
But he was never in a hurry, never in a rush to do anything, really, but his best. All that mattered, he said, was not the status of a job, but how well and how diligently he performed it.
While he was busy doing his “best,” I was busy having babies (three in five years) and going to basketball games. That’s where I met David, at the games. I was 21. He was 16. It’s not like you could miss him, really.
David was a special-education student at Monterey High, a big lumbering bear who loved basketball with all his being, but lacked the coordination to play.
Instead, starting in high school and continuing some 40 years, he showed up at every game as “team manager,” taking care of the balls and towels, slapping players on the backs if they did well, and giving grief, like it or not, if they missed shots or made the team look bad.
He took special umbrage at lazy defense. (“You gotta box out! Even I can do that! Want me to teach you?”) They’d pretend to ignore him, but win or lose, they’d at least try harder to box out.
More than anything – maybe even more than basketball – David loved hugs. Not from the players, but the cheerleaders, the female fans on either team and even the coaches’ wives.
When my husband became head coach, he inherited David with the job, he said, a fixture like the gym or the uniforms or the Toreador mascot.
I’m not sure David ever knew my name. He called me “Mrs. Coach.” At every game, home or away, he’d spot me in the stands and come clomping up the bleachers, parting the crowd like the Red Sea to get a hug.
When David hugged you, you knew you’d been hugged.
Our oldest child, when he was 5, wanted to be “ball boy” for his dad’s team. David wouldn’t hear of it. He and the boy battled it out tooth and nail for years, fighting over loose balls like dogs over a bone. More than once, I stepped between them.
All was forgiven after the boy started high school and played on his dad’s team. David liked the way the boy boxed out.
Later, in the years the coach was battling cancer, David never said much, just did his job as always, diligently and well.
He hated sweeping the gym floor. Sweeping was a janitor’s job, not the team manager’s, he said. But if he caught the coach sweeping, as he sometimes did, he’d grab the broom and finish the job without a word.
The morning of the coach’s memorial service, someone took photos of preparations in the gym. Bleachers were pulled out, chairs were set up to seat the crowd. A thousand paper cranes folded by his students flew in a “V” from the goal. And there was David, sweeping the floor.
That was long ago. I had not seen David in years. I heard he’d retired as team manager. I had remarried, moved away, was back in town for a visit, when I ran into him at Toasties, my favorite breakfast place.
He was sitting at the counter, older, grayer, big as ever, with his sweet wife, Stephanie.
“David,” I said, tapping his shoulder, “remember me?”
His eyes welled up as he rose from the counter and slowly engulfed me in a big bear hug.
“Mrs. Coach,” he said, lifting me off my feet, “Mrs. Coach.”
When David hugs you? You still know you’ve been hugged.