By Coach Jay Alverson
On Saturday March 9th 2019 I was trying to talk with Jay’den Turner of Southwest Guilford about NCHSAA Men’s 3A Western Region Basketball finals that had just end when one of the league officials interrupted us and directed me to finish the interview down in the postgame press conference. And that is how I ended up sitting in my first ever press conference.
Not one to ever be mistaken as shy, and a firm believer in the “fake it until you make it” approach to new jobs, I fired off a single question to Cox Mill’s head coach Jodie Barbee, which happened to be the first words I had ever spoken to the coach I had heard so many rave about since I moved here three years ago. I asked something related to the quality of his JV program and how he thought next year would be. As he took his next breath, I recognized by the way his eyes puffed up, how he drew a deep but unsteady breath and how he avoided eye contact for just a moment that he was stepping down. How did I know this? Because I have had to do it three times myself.
As he began to speak, I attempted to nod my head in a reassuring manor. Hoping to offer some level of comfort coach to coach. I knew the pain he was feeling and I knew how hard it is to publicly acknowledge that he was walking away from the Juniors, Sophomores and Freshmen that had bought into his program and his vision. The first time I ever “donned the visor and headset” my team won the District 10 (Northern California) championship. I left for Virginia the next day. After leading Woodrow Wilson’s (Portsmouth VA) JV team to a 9-1 season and helping a record 18 out of 22 varsity seniors find scholarships to play at the next level I gathered my kids around and told them I was moving to Charlotte NC. I did it again to my players in 2017 after an 100% administration change over at Cabarrus County’s Christ the King Catholic High School meant a different vision and priorities for the program I had started. By stepping down I knew I was letting down the Juniors and Sophomores who had taken beatings, suffered humiliating defeats and but experienced the thrill of the program’s first two wins because they believed in what I was telling them.
As coaches we love our players as if they are our own. I have told every group of players that I have coached since my first daughter was born in 2002 that they are the sons I will never have. That they were/are my legacy so I knew the pain Coach Barbee had to have felt as the delivered the news to his team in the locker room before coming into face the press.
Then the two-time defending state champion explained that he had made his decision because he wanted to spend more time with his family and friends and that he wanted to have a chance to watch his son play. I instantly felt a common bond with the man I had never spoken to before.
Barbee explained that he wanted to do something that could not happen if he continued to coach at a school different from the one his son played at. He told us that his son had decided not to transfer out of loyalty to his own teammates. The Coach in Barbee respected that but the father in him was proud of that. He talked about how it was a difficult call but the right decision. I wanted to stop the press conference and tell him that he had said the wrong thing. What he had meant to say is that he didn’t want to retire and look back and realize that for all the things he had accomplished as a coach he had failed the ultimate test, the test of fatherhood.
How do I know that’s what he really wanted to say? Because I failed that very same test. Prior to going into coaching full time, I spent 21+ years in the military. 5 years and 8 months as a US Marine and the remainder as an Intelligence Specialist in the US Air Force. My DD214 (the official separation paperwork where your career is reduced to a single piece of paper) had an impressive listing of some 24 medals. The write-ups for these make me out to be some kind of comic book hero. They talk about “valor in the face of imminent danger” and “immeasurable contributions to improving international relations.” My shadow box is filled with mementos that tell a story of a decorated leader who supposedly cared about the welfare of his men “above the call of duty” and led the Air Force’s 480th Intelligence Wing (the USAF’s largest wing at the time) through the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell “with dignity and compassion never before experienced by those who were affected most.” My evaluations tell the story of an innovator, an experimenter and “fearless leader who galvanized the fighting will of hundreds.” But it’s what they don’t tell that, looking back, matters the most.
They don’t tell the story of a father who missed 9 birthdays, 4 Christmases and countless firsts. Including my youngest daughter’s first birthday, first steps, first words, first day of school and my oldest daughter’s first tooth, first dance, first nightmare. They don’t tell the story of a husband who was half a world away while his wife fought incompetent doctors as their infant daughter fought for her life. They don’t tell of the man who was on a plane while a surgeon cut open his baby girl in a touch and go surgery. They don’t tell of the father and husband who was out listening to music and having dinner with pals in Korea while his wife sat in an ICU room listening to a machine breath for that same daughter.
That’s why I instantly respected the Coach who many will question. He will be there for his son’s senior night. I won’t be there for my oldest daughter’s. He will be there to celebrate the wins and provide comfort after the losses. He put his family ahead of himself. His wife will be able to reach out and find his hand to hold when their son has his big moment and they as a family will shed some tears when his time on the court or field is done.
Sometimes life presents you with choices and its hard to decide which one is the right one. Sometimes life gives you opportunities to be more than you are. Sometimes the answers are easy other times they aren’t. But if your faith is strong enough, your heart is open enough, your mind is focused enough and you are man enough you will make the right call. Coach Barbee did this on a cold and rainy afternoon in Hickory. And that’s why he is a much better man than I.
Jay Alverson is a veteran, a football coach at Victory Christian and a broadcaster with Radio Free Cabarrus/485 Sports.