Soundings: Thanks, Coach

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

It is time to say thank you.

I do not mean here that we need to give thanks as we do annually around the Thanksgiving table — that general acknowledgement of gratitude for blessings received. Fruits of thy bounty. Family and friends. Home and hearth and the peace and accord of that first Thanksgiving commemorated with food and football and another Christmas shopping list.

I think it time to turn Thanksgiving into a real act of thanks giving.

Think back to people you have known, people who contributed those random acts of kindness, those unexpected expressions of generosity, or forgiveness, or a favor. The neighbor who repaired the fence even though, technically, the damaged fence is your responsibility. The friend who helped you through that most difficult time in your life — who is now more distant simply because the need for life support is not so dear.

Then tell them, thank them, send them a card or a note or an email. Pick out three this year and three the next and spread the appreciation. Big or small, long ago or recent — be specifically thankful to someone for something this Thanksgiving.

Here, I’ll start.

Jim Robarts. Metairie, Louisiana.

Jim Robarts was my basketball coach at Jesuit High School in Shreveport, Louisiana. It was his first job after serving in the military police. He was a big man and he yelled at us and hounded us and drove us to exhaustion. We would, in turn, run through those proverbial walls for him, and did push ourselves beyond the limits of our own expectations.

He was also my freshman football coach and civics teacher, and I learned a lot about manhood from him. Still today, I consider him one of the most influential people in my life — even though he left my little high school after my junior year to coach a big high school in New Orleans.

A few years later, having had no contact with our former coach, a bunch of us guys were on a freewheeling spree and landed in New Orleans for a few nights on the town. And I called Jim Robarts and asked for a place to stay — the very night we arrived in the Crescent City to let the good times roll.

And he said yes. He and his wife Maryann and their newborn son made room for us. They shared their home. And we, in turn, spent almost the entire time touring the French Quarter.

In the years since, I have marveled at my audacity. Having hosted houseguests now myself, I have imagined that private conversation, between husband and young wife, when these clueless teenage yokels called without warning and said, “Hey, we’re in town, can we stay at your place? Yeah, right now. . . . Where? At a gas station off I-10.”

I’m sure I thanked him at the time, but as I’ve grown older the full weight of that request, that imposition, that boldly inappropriate blunder has penetrated my scruples (time and again). And I have also marveled at the gracious hospitality of that sacrifice.

But another four years passes and I do it again. 1973. This time: “Dear Coach, 10 of us — Notre Dame students — need a place to stay for the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame versus Alabama.”

And again he found us a place — all of us, for free — at his mother-in-law’s dance studio. And they not only put up with us, our wayward schedule and our hangovers, but they also cooked us breakfast every morning till we finally left town.

I’m sure I thanked him at the time. And haven’t been in touch since.

But as the years have gone by I have thought about that memory — certainly one of the happiest times of my life. And I have recalled my high school glory days and our practices and games and the trips to little-town Louisiana and all the funny moments and his barking voice reverberating throughout the gym, his tirades full of military police expletives. I loved the man.

I thought it time to really say thank you.

So I did an online search, half expecting to read Jim Robarts’ obituary.

What I found instead is that just last year he retired from coaching — at age 70. And that he had coached at Archbishop Rummel and East Jefferson and a couple of other stops, that he won two 4-A state championships and was inducted into the Louisiana High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1994, one year after being named Mr. Louisiana Basketball, an award given annually to the person who has made a significant long-term contribution to basketball in the state.

I knew him as a relative kid — a young father still in his 20s, less than 10 years older than me and my teammates. And my thank you is not so much for what I learned from him (about life and myself) through basketball (although that is significant) as it is for those two times long ago that he shared his home with my friends and me. I should thank Maryann too — maybe most of all.

We all need to say thanks more. I think this holiday is the right time to do that, to surprise someone with an expression of appreciation for something they did that made our lives a little better. A new Thanksgiving tradition.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.