When it’s more than a game

The death of Northwestern football coach Randy Walker was a shock to virtually everyone in the college football world, and especially to the folks who knew him best in Evanston, Ill. After all, the man was just 52 years young and in seemingly good physical condition when a heart attack took his life late last week. But what is truly shocking, perhaps just shy of miraculous, is that high-strung, burned-out coaches in the pressure cooker of college or professional football aren’t keeling over with more regularity.

Even on the elite high school level, football coaches have been pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion and beyond for generations. Burned eternally into my brain is the image of my old high school coach, sweating bullets of intensity and vomiting in the parking lot before every game. I can still see his crushed shirts and never-combed hair because he slept in the coaches’ office three days a week.

And he was only an assistant.

I remember another assistant who later took over the head job at my school but was forced away from the game due to stress-induced heart problems and hyper obesity. After all, who had time to prepare healthy meals when there was film to watch?

My college coaches, even on the Division III level, were no different. There were meetings, and then practice. Followed by meetings, then weight and conditioning workouts. Followed by film sessions, then more meetings. Followed by four hours of sleep, then morning meetings. Followed by film sessions, then practice.

The pace they kept was grueling, and nowhere in their regimen did I observe time for family, rest, relaxation, a healthy meal, or anything that those of us in other professions take for granted.

In two seasons of covering and traveling with the Raiders, and observing the brutal schedule kept by then-coach Jon Gruden and his staff, that same intensity and devotion to the game was multiplied by an infinite number. I distinctly remember telling friends that it would kill me if I ever had to put in the work that those guys did. And I wondered why it wasn’t killing them.

Coaches in every sport are certainly driven to succeed, and I would never disparage the dedication of baseball managers, basketball coaches, or any other teachers of games, but football coaches truly are different animals. They have to be.

Football coaches recognize that any failure to push themselves and their players to beyond the breaking point means that someone else is passing them up. And when that happens, games are lost. And when games are lost, jobs are lost. And so they put themselves in harm’s way, physically, as much as any firefighter, coal miner, or police officer does on a daily basis.

If Randy Walker’s tragic death is to mean anything to anyone, here’s hoping it serves as a message to other coaches: Your game is important, but get some perspective, please. So is your life.

Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner.

E-mail him at bfrantz@examiner.com.

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