Auld Lang Syne


He’s got him on his back: A Saint Ignatius track guy climbs on his teammate’s shoulders as the  Wolfpack wins the 2012 Chicago Catholic League Indoor Track Championship last March. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

A few weeks ago I got a message from a former runner at Saint Ignatius College Prep asking me for a track team t-shirt.  He explained that he was volunteering for an organization for mentally challenged adults, working as a buddy with a young man who liked our former runner’s stories about our team.  I have a box of old shirts—usually when our team orders gear I have a few extras left over—and I sent one off.

I got a voice mail a couple days later with an enthusiastic thank you for the shirt.  He had just had his buddy time for the week, and our former runner went on for a minute about how his buddy had loved the shirt—and how his buddy had loved the idea that he could now be a part of our team, too.

Contact with our alumni runners is often even less formal and fleeting.  This is my tenth year of coaching at Saint Ignatius, and so the alumni base of boys that I have coached probably numbers around 200 or so.  About half of that group is now out of college; about half are still in school.  They range in age now from 18 to 27 or so.  The group now includes doctors and lawyers in training, a nurse, a pedacab driver, a Marine, artists and musicians, engineers, bankers, and graduate students.

If I had to graph the status of those ongoing relationships after graduation against time out of school, I tend to hear more often from the younger guys—usually when they stop by for visits at school during college vacations.  But I am Facebook friends with some of these former runners, and I hear from them by email with good wishes before big events and congratulations after big successes from time to time.  Some of them read this blog from time to time, or they keep up with the team through information posted on the school web pages and publications for alumni.

Last summer my wife and I bumped into one of our former runners when we were out to dinner.  Peggy had been coaching with me when this young man was on the Saint Ignatius track and cross country teams.  We had a nice short talk.  He was graduated from college and ready to move on with some new opportunities in his life.   We told him about the successes of our team.

A couple weeks ago a bereavement email to the Saint Ignatius community gave us sad news of this young man’s death.

The circumstances of his death are difficult and hard to talk about.  His funeral was a profoundly sad event, as former schoolmates and teachers and a few teammates gathered with his family and other friends to say goodbye.  He was remembered as a young man of special kindness and generosity, who had lived his life with a spirit of genuine joy and friendship.  His years at Saint Ignatius College Prep were special to him–especially his friends from that time.

It was the first funeral for me of a runner that I had coached.

After a year in which our Saint Ignatius track and cross country teams had great success, these two end of the year events with former runners remind me that we coach to prepare and teach our athletes for the lives they have ahead of them—and we have great hopes for those lives.  It gives me an occasion to reflect on my work as a coach and as a teacher for the last ten years.

As a teacher I spend a little bit more than three hours a week with the 100 or so students in the classroom, usually for one school year.  I spend probably fifteen hours a week with the 70 or so boys that I coach, and for about 30 of these boys that is for seven months of the year—and for four years.  Sometimes I teach AND coach the same boys.  As one boy told me once, “I spend more time with you, Coach Ernst, than I spend with my parents!”

It is on my list of things to do for next year to think about how to keep in better touch with these old friends.


1 Comment

Filed under coaching, teaching

One response to “Auld Lang Syne

  1. Peggy shared this sad story with me. How heart-breaking. And how vulnerable it makes all of us feel.

    The guys are sure lucky to have you as a coach.

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