My tightly laced Nikes toed the starting line on our high school's indoor track as I readied myself to run 600 yards. “GO,” the coach shouted in a commanding voice that scared and motivated me at the same time.
Like so many high school coaches who endure long hours and low pay to inspire kids, Wayne Steffenhagen had a vision for me I could barely imagine. These unsung and often unappreciated heroes teach insecure teenage kids in thousands of educational sports settings that belief combined with hard work can make them winners in the race called life.
A coach’s words are powerful when spoken directly to your face, especially if those words are about who you are and who you’re capable of being. The words I heard that day stuck in my brain and adhered to me like a lifetime of Gorilla Glue stuck in my gut. If you played high school sports, you might have had a similar experience.
Lessons learned in sports
Some argue that America’s public schools should focus exclusively on academics and leave sports to private clubs and community leagues. I don't see it this way. This country’s system of affiliating sports with schools has paid incalculable dividends, and not just for athletic stars recruited by colleges.
The lessons learned on competitive high school sports teams are applied to the academic competition of college and, later, the global competition we face in our careers.
High school sports can be a religious experience because thousands of coaches like Steffenhagen make kids believe in themselves and each other.
Some contend that coaches should never raise their voices to athletes, especially impressionable children. They say legendary professional football coaches like Tom Landry never yelled, and the greatest college basketball coach of all-time, John Wooden, rarely raised his voice above a whisper.
Say it loudly: Winners never quit
Steffenhagen wasn’t Landry or Wooden. He was the second coming of Vince Lombardi, demanding and in-your-face LOUD to the boys at my high school.
Built like a granite boulder with a look that resembled a bulldozer with spectacles, Steffenhagen had a voice that could be measured on the Richter Scale. When he spoke, athletes listened. When he yelled, it felt like tremors rippling the ground on the field of athletic competition.
My moving experience with Steffenhagen didn’t occur in a school track meet. Yes, I lettered under Steffenhagen in track and field. But this was “gym class.”
When toughness was taught as a virtue
The 600-yard run was one part of a battery of twice-a-year physical fitness tests now maligned as psychologically damaging but then required by the United States president. Ike, JFK and LBJ thought American kids were getting flabby and soft. A Presidential Physical Fitness Award was given to students at or above the 85th percentile.
Physical and mental toughness was considered a virtue to be trained in public schools back then. Today, there is not so much, with three-fourths of high students active less than an hour a day.
Teaching boys they have what it takes
When I met Steffenhagen in 1977, he radiated physical and mental toughness as a demanding, 34-year-old physical education teacher, sophomore football coach and varsity track coach at my high school in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
I was a scrawny, insecure sophomore eager to prove to myself and the world I had what it takes, whatever “it” meant. I didn’t know. Steffenhagen seemed to know more than I did.
Over a teaching and coaching career that spanned more than three decades, he helped me and countless others span the bridge from boyhood to manhood.
Coaching is about inspiring
The man was an inspirational motivator. So are the thousands of coaches who teach our kids in our schools.
“Even years after their playing days are done, athletes still remember the valuable lessons their coaches taught them,” says Martin Davis, author of the soon-to-be published book,`30 Days with America’s High School Coaches.’
“What these coaches teach students about self-discipline, character, the importance of team, managing the vicissitudes of day-to-day life are lessons that apply to everyone.”
A legend in the making
When I knew him, “Steff,” as we called him (not, of course, to his face), had not yet reached the status of a coaching legend.
He hadn’t racked up 276 wins and five state titles in 33 years of coaching high school football. He had not yet been inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame or the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Hitting the wall
In gym class that day, he held a clipboard tucked under his left arm and a stopwatch in his right hand. I noticed the steely eyes behind the glasses starting at me.
I took off like a horse out of the gate. But after 400 yards, I started to fade.
As I approached the end of my race, it felt as if my once-light shoes suddenly had lead weights in them. With 40 yards to go, I was hitting what runners call “the wall.”
This wasn’t a big track meet with a crowd in the stands. This was third-hour gym class at 10 a.m. on a Monday. Steffenhagen could have gone through the motions of testing. He cared too much to do that.
Steffenhagen saw my faltering gait. He stood just outside the lines of the final corner of the indoor track.
His left arm moved clockwise in a circular, furious, windmill-like fashion, propelling me forward. A combination of intensity and encouragement radiated from his face.
Proclamation of faith
That’s when Coach Steffenhagen did and said something I can still see and hear.
He made an audaciously bold proclamation of faith not just in what I could do but in who I could be.
“O’Keefe, you’re a good one,” he boomed. “You’re going to be a GREAT one.”
The man’s testosterone-charged blend of fuel and fear entered my psyche’s tank. Something tangibly kicked in. I could feel it.
Did he say “great?”
Was he really talking about me?
We have a liftoff
I lifted like a NASA spacecraft separating from the first stage of a Saturn V rocket. That was a scene every boy my age vicariously experienced via TV when we watched Apollo take Americans to the moon — as Kennedy boldly proclaimed we would.
I wasn’t just watching TV from a couch this time. I was doing something physical on a track.
What Kennedy did to inspire a nation, Steffenhagen did to super-charge a school, a team and an athlete, even an average one like me. He had the gift of setting a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goal) and convincing others to come with him to make that vision a reality.
I felt lighter, stronger and faster as I shifted into a higher gear some coaches refer to as a last-gasp “kick.”
I crossed the finish line with a forward lean.
“1:26,” he said.
It wasn’t a school record, but it was close, and it was a milestone moment for me.
I had just endured a grueling physical test and passed it with flying colors. It felt like a manly rite of passage.
Steffenhagen approached me with a smile of satisfaction. He patted me on my back.
“Great job, O’Keefe.”
Why did this man care about getting the most out of me and thousands of other boys? Why did he endure the long hours and low pay? Steffenhagen’s 2013 comment in The Wausau Daily Herald is telling.
“The competition part certainly enters into it,” Steffenhagen said, “but I would say it’s basically the relationships with the young men and being able to teach and see them grow as a student and an athlete. That’s really the driving force.”
Coach Steffenhagen died on February 18. He was 79.
They turned the lights on at Steffenhagen Field that night. Despite the single-digit cold, people flocked there like U.S. citizens coming to pay last respects to a president lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. His impact on a community and a state were incalculable.
A legacy that lives on
His impact on the hearts of young men beats on in the older men we have become.
“Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” is a management book by Jim C. Collins that describes how companies transition from being good companies to great companies and how most companies fail to make the transition.
Decades before the book was published, Steffenhagen inspired pimply-faced teenagers like me to make the transition from good to great.
Even today, when I’m fading and feel like quitting, I sometimes imagine Steffenhagen on that last corner, seeing something in me I didn’t see in myself. His fighting spirit helps me run hard through the finish line.
About the author: Mark O’Keefe is a vice president in communications for a trade association and a part-time executive coach for men who want to be happier, healthier and wealthier in their 50s and beyond. Sign up for his monthly newsletter here.