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"My Greatest Life Coach - Mr. Encourager"

Every morning Kole (our family dog) and I wake up early to go for our morning walk at the local park. Excited, he scurries down the stairs in anticipation of who he may see. Standing upright in the passenger's seat, he gets more excited as he recognizes his favorite location because he knows he's going to see many other furry friends to play with.

As we entered the multi-complex park grounds this morning, I noticed hundreds of parents on the field with their children. The kids were suited in their soccer outfits and played on what appeared to be carefully, outlined mini-soccer fields. Proud parents paced the sidelines and cheered for their son or daughter. Some captured precious moments with mini-DV and digital still cameras, and their grins spoke much at how special this time was for them as it was for their young ones.

It's moments like these that a sadness surrounds my heart. Just seeing a father place his arm around his son or daughter leaves a snippet of remorse because I know how much it meant to me to have my father's hand resting on my shoulders. It reminded me of the days when he faithfully attended my soccer games.

My first introduction to an organized sport was in the 4th grade. Although I started playing soccer at school, I seriously got involved with the sport with my local town league. My friend Todd asked me if I would be interested in participating in an already well-established travel team. The team had distinguished itself as being one of excellence and competitive in the Long Island region and I was touched by his offer. What made it even more special was that Todd's father was the coach.

I remember that feeling of stepping onto the field. Decked-out in an impeccable uniform and wearing the latest equipment, I felt like I was a part of a something, something big and exciting. Each team member played an invaluable role. Now I was brought into the mix and had to slowly develop credibility and trust with each member. Basically, I was the new kid on the block. Another challenge I faced was being positioned in an unfamiliar situation. The coach placed me at left wing, a position I had never played before. It appeared at first to be a wrong decision since I was a natural rightie, but little did I realize that this position would help me learn to use both feet well. Over time, the position became second nature and the friendships I made turned into a sort of brotherhood. We played year round, including winter seasons. Over the years, we established more credibility amidst our competitors and took home many championship trophies. Values such as teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship, strategy, and how to win and lose well were learned.

As I try to ascertain what made that team so successful, in wins and the duration of time, I can think of several variables that played a part. There was no question that each player was uniquely gifted and had a good understanding of the game. There was a selfless exchange of giving between players and no one individual was more valuable than the next. Our coach also had several years of experience from which he drew from as he carefully chose good players for the next season. He certainly had a gift of bringing together some of the best talent in the area and created a chemistry that's hard to develop. There were no egos to deal with (at least from what I remember). When we lost a game, it was never easy. However, it was the losses which acted as the driving force to succeed the following week. Whatever town we were in, we were determined to give our very best and play with a level of respect.

I could spend a lot of more time unearthing what made that travel team such a success. However, I feel there is a much greater reason why those years were so meaningful to me. It has nothing to do with my teammates, my soccer coach, or my talents; it had to do with my father.

My dad was a great baseball player as a young man and had much talent. He could teach me a lot about hitting a baseball, pitching, and how to catch and throw a ball properly. He knew the basic mechanics to the game. But he didn't know much about the game of soccer. He didn't have all the skills or the knowledge in how to help me improve my game. But what he gave me was far more valuable than anything someone else could have given me. It was his continual support and encouragement to me.

No matter how demanding my father's schedule was, he was somehow always in attendance. Most often he was standing in his suit, cheering for me and letting me know he was there, no matter what the outcome was. When I came to the sidelines, he would always smile at me or give me a wink as if to say, "keep up the great work." And then when the game was over, he would wrap his arm around my shoulders and walk me off the field. It was as if he played the game with me. He was so into what I was into.

I recall my father sharing several times amongst family and friends how I would weave in and out of players and that he would move his feet as if he was playing. He thought this was so funny. But truth be told, he was participating with me and entering into my experience as I played on the field. In fact, he cheered for all the players. By name, he would call out to them, telling them, "great job," "way to go," or something that got their attention. This may be where he got his familiar phrase, "Big...(fill in the 'person's name)" had its birthing. I can't confirm that though. He would clasp his hands around his mouth and yell, "Big Justin" or "Big Todd," depending on who he was directing his cheer towards. He had a special way of letting each player know that they were valued. From the defensive line to the offense, including those on the sidelines, he had a knack for giving a word which made each person feel special - a feeling we all desire to have.

Surprisingly, my father was one of the few who faithfully attended each game. As we got closer to the playoffs and finally the championship game, many parents and friends would show up. But for most of the season, most were not in attendance. Perhaps that's why my father made it a purpose to be at each game. He made each us feel valued and loved, yet he always made me feel somehow extra special, that I was his son.

The first week my father was admitted to the hospital in June 2003, we had many from around the country arrive at his bedside to offer some encouraging word or prayer for a quick recovery. We also had friends who lived overseas calling to see how my dad was and hoped to speak with him. He appreciated the many who came to see him and the outpouring love by phone, e-mails, and gifts, but he never wanted anyone to feel pity for him. Actually, he made it a point to make each encounter an opportunity to encourage, to lift someone up, or make them laugh. It sounds absurd, but it's true. There were times I got angry because I simply wanted him to receive what these wonderful individuals came to share with him. But that was my father. Who was I to tell him what to do. Here was a man who lived his life lifting others up, standing in the gap, and offered hope to those who needed it. I could only stand there and watch this wonderful man move so naturally in the gifts he was wired to do - encourage. Exhortation was his thing. This was his remarkable trait but hallmark to every great leader.

My experience on the soccer field foreshadowed the committed role my father would play for my life and my future. At the core, he was and always be my life coach. Today, my soccer skills would really do little for anyone. My trophies sit on the shelf gathering layers of dust and have little meaning to me or anyone else. I'm grateful to my teammates for allowing me to play with them and to my former coaches for giving me the opportunity to play under their leadership. Nevertheless, anything that I've ever achieved rests in a far greater coach. My father was that man and will continue to play that role, even though he isn't with me anymore.

There are days that I find myself feeling that loss. I wish I could go to him with important questions, specific issues, or simply for some needed advice. From topics on integrity, business matters, spiritual growth, and fulfilling my purpose, my father was the go to man. Why? Because he faithfully modeled a life of integrity. When you live such a life, you earn that respect and there's nothing anyone can do to take that mantle away from you. Besides his wisdom, I simply enjoyed being in his presence. He offered joy and gave away what he had, for as he gave away, he gained more and became the wonderful encourager, coach, and friend I miss today.