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My Friend Mike

My friend Mike Meyer and I were not friends when we first met.  You need to know that.  Most of the problem was me.  Actually, all of the problem was me.  I’m not going to say that Mike is the same person today that he was when he showed up at Greencastle in the summer of 2004.  He’s not.  He’s changed tremendously.  But even when he was the man he was back then, the reason we didn’t get along was because of me.

I was a coach at the time.  Petty.  Insecure.  Self-obsessed.  I was always more comfortable in my own skin in front of the chalkboard than I ever was holding a whistle…or a clipboard…or golf course scouting report.  I wanted desperately to be the “John Fallis” of Greencastle golf.  It’s silly, really.  One of the dumbest things a guy can think when he assumes the position of head coach of anything.  Not just “simple” dumb…really, really selfish dumb.  I know that.

But that man—Fallis…?  That’s another reason I didn’t like my friend Mike.  I loved Coach Fallis.  When his good friend and neighbor, Doug Miller—Greencastle’s long-standing athletic director and all-around adorable mentor—left GHS, I was saddened.  When Fallis left at almost the same time I was crushed.  These guys were my professional father figures, and I didn’t realize just how much I leaned on them until they weren’t there to lean on any longer.

Then, when Bob Berry—GHS’s beloved art teacher of almost three decades—passed away a couple years later…?  That was sort of the tipping point for me.  I remember leaving school to go to Bob’s funeral.  I remember sitting through it.  I remember returning to the high school and silently climbing the stairs to my floor.  I can still see myself unlock my classroom door (no was in there at the time thanks to lunch), locking it as crossed the threshold, finding a student desk in a far corner, sitting there, and sobbing.  Violent, heaving, sobs.

 

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I hated the world for taking Bob away from me.  I hated myself for not going down to the art room to talk to him more often.  And I took all that out on Mike.  Where John and Doug and Bob would shrug their shoulders when I said something off-kilter, Mike would explode and put a finger in my face and ask me what was wrong with me.  Mike wasn’t anything I was used to, and even though Mike had no way to know that, even though none of what was happening to me was his fault, I still blamed him.

Then something happened.  The powers that be at the time moved Mike upstairs…to the classroom directly across from mine.  Now this guy—who I was more than courageous enough to fight via email—stood across from me in the flesh. And that’s when the greatest thing happened.  That’s when Mike Meyer showed me what being a real friend is all about.  When we made eye contact, he said, “Hi.”  And he meant it.  When he asked me a question about some new dumb rule or another—like a rule demanding that students wear their ID’s on their foreheads…and then walk on their hands to generate appropriate “danglage”—he’d ask me what I thought about it.  And he genuinely wanted to know my opinion, too.

I was rattled.  I thought this guy was supposed to be mean.  I thought he was supposed to melt you with laser beams that come from his eyes.

Then I watched him work the hallway every passing period, and that’s probably when the most profound thing happened.  Yes, it’s true that Mike Meyer rode a lot of kids’ asses.  Look, Mike and I both love working with teenagers, but—honestly—teenagers are often irresponsible goofballs.  Loveable, funny-as-hell, super-likeable goofballs, but goofballs nonetheless.  And suddenly I saw Mike Meyer spending every passing period approaching all kinds of teenagers, not just his football players, but the purple-haired girl who lives away from home and works until 2:00 AM.  The heavy-set video-gamer who’s never worried about a single deadline (or bill or mortgage payment) a day in his life.  I saw my friend Mike do everything from berate to plead with these kids.  It wasn’t because they annoyed him…okay, that’s kind of a lie…but it was also because he cared.

Mike Meyer cared about them all, whether they wore pads or not.

After his first week across the hall from me, I realized I was wrong.  Wrong about him.  He was much, much more of a teacher and a person than I gave him credit for.  And I was wrong about me.  I was a lot less of both.

I was across the hall when the school board forced Mike out of his coaching gig.  It was an ugly affair, probably still neatly wrapped in digital amber on our local newspaper’s website.  Hold on… Let me check…  Yep.  It’s still there, along with all 80 of the comments following the story.

Because he loved football, he worked as an assistant at Northview, commuting to Brazil every day for some four years.  We small-talked football, and sometimes we “big-talked” Greencastle politics.  By that time my own coaching gig had ended.  Mostly by my own hand.  I got divorced, went bankrupt, lost my house, and sort of lost my mind a bit as well.  But the same gargoyles haunting the ousting of Meyer were around when I got the boot as well, and my friend Mike showed a tremendous amount of sympathy at the time.  He didn’t have to.  But he did, anyway.  Add that to the list.

I was there also when Mike rejoined the Greencastle staff…as an assistant, working for one of the guys who had benefitted from his ouster.  When that guy left—the way all those guys leave when the talent pool has been drained—Mike took over.  And when his first “new” team went 1-9, a lot of folks were muttering the same things they’d said during his first go-around on the sideline.

Mike Meyer cared about all his students, whether they wore pads or not.

But something was different this time, and it was a big something.  The first Coach Meyer was an ex-college guy.  Gruff and profane and used to legal adults.  This new Coach Meyer was a high school coach. This new Coach Meyer had spent more than a half-decade connecting with his students on a level he probably never thought he would.  He didn’t acknowledge it…oh hell, no.  He’d never spot any kid a chance to wallow in pity.  But he found himself in them, and when he returned to that sideline, he’d learned how connect with those boys.  Bond with them.

I can’t “measure” the difference.  I can only tell you I saw it as senior after senior walked in and out of my classroom expressing a devotion to their coach on a level I hadn’t seen since…well…since John Fallis worked here.  Maybe given that, it shouldn’t be such as surprise that the Mike Meyer who struggled to win when he first arrived at Greencastle was now the Mike Meyer who went 24-9 for three straight years.  Clearly something that I had lost had come back.  Sure, those aforementioned father figures were still gone, but I had replaced them something else.  I had filled them in with a big brother.  Both my world, and the worlds of a whole lot of high school kids, are better off because my friend Mike became a part of it.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

Photo Credit: Photos Courtesy of “The Tiger’s Den” Facebook Page.  Lindsay Stone and Melissa Winslow.

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