Once during my senior year of high school, I got up on a Friday morning with the chills and body aches. No big surprise since it was January and right in the middle of flu season. I was never against missing a day or two of high school. The level of concentration my senior year wasn’t that good anyway. However, I got dressed, had hot tea and toast for breakfast, and dressed in a couple of sweaters. How could I miss school? It was game day. I don’t remember who we played or if we won or lost. The one thing I will always take from that experience is that during the course of that game, I never felt sick. It was difficult to warm up and I spent about 30 minutes in a hot shower after the game, but while I played, the flu took a back seat to athletic competition.
Call it mind over illness or just the fact I could only concentrate on one thing at a time but the flu took second place. Sometimes, other things can cause the flu. During my first year of coaching as an assistant boys’ coach at Humboldt (NE) High School, we were in the middle of a 10-game losing streak. Our next opponent was highly-ranked Falls City Sacred Heart. The head coach was catching a lot of grief over the losing streak. He was in his first year, too, and didn’t think he thought the coaching profession was going to be quite this tough. The day of the Sacred Heart game, the head coach came down with the flu. That left me to handle the coaching duties. I wish I could tell you it was a great coaching debut, but I’m afraid someone would look it up. The margin wasn’t close. The head coach was back the next day and the experience left me feeling really ill.
The fact that the head coach fell ill during the season was probably a signal he wasn’t meant to coach. Coaches just don’t get sick during the season. He was fired at the end of the year. The last I heard from the head coach was he returned to a school close to his hometown and spent most of the rest of his coaching career at the junior high level.
Never getting sick isn’t exclusive to the coaching profession. Just ask any elementary teacher. There is no other profession where the boss is sneezed on, slobbered on, rubbed against, and puked on more that an elementary teacher. The hardy people in this profession very seldom miss a day. I hear elementary teachers say all the germs must make them immune to disease. I believe it even if the medical profession probably won’t back them up. I spent five years of my educational career as an elementary teacher. To prove our theory of disease immunity, I have to tell you about one of the toughest moments during those five years. I was a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Pleasantdale Elementary School in Nebraska. We were a satellite school of the Milford Public Schools. We didn’t have a full time janitor, so any messes made in the classroom were taken care of by the teachers.
One day, one of my students puked in a sink that was along the wall of our classroom. We had corn for lunch, I’m sure of that. The corn wouldn’t go down the drain. As I’m cleaning it up, I probably turned white as a sheet. I know I started gagging. Just then, one of my sixth grade pupils named Jerry tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mr. Steinmeyer, I can clean it up for you. I have three brothers and sisters. Jerry cleaned it up and received straight “A’s” on the next report card. The good news is I never got the flu. As you can tell, I wasn’t cut out to be an elementary teacher. Thank goodness coaching has been kinder to me. In 31 years as a head coach in high school and college, I have missed one preseason practice to the flu. I was actually at practice, but it’s hard to give instructions while kneeling at the toilet.
There have been a couple of close calls. While at Doane College, we headed up to Orange City, Iowa, to play Northwestern College. Northwestern is known around here as the college that produced Mel Tjeerdsma, our very successful football coach and Dr. Bob Boerigter, my athletic director. When I was at Doane College, Northwestern was known as the college where it was always bone-chilling cold. I had caught one of those cold and chest congestions that seems to happen every winter. No big deal to a coach. You cough before the game and after the game, but something happens during the game.
The foyer at the old gym on the Northwestern campus is very close to the visitor’s bench. During this visit, the temperature was below zero with a 30 mile an hour wind blowing right through the foyer. It’s a good thing we were winning or I think I’d have found the nearest heating duct.
The other close call to missing a game came unexpectedly. It was the Saturday before the Super Bowl and my Doane team was visiting Rockhurst University. Both teams were very good, with Rockhurst winning 26 games that year. I think it was the first year for head coach, Maryann Mitts, now the head coach at Missouri Southern. The game started great as we jumped out to a 10-point lead. However, slowly the Rockhurst team closed the margin. We tried everything, but my usually high-energy team couldn’t put on a second-half rally and we lost by more than 20 points. As the game neared its conclusion, my stomach was rumbling. I considered leaving the bench in the last five minutes, but stuck it out. I spent about 30 minutes in the bathroom after the game and barely made it back to Crete, Neb, about three-and-a-half hours away.
As I lay on the sofa, barely watching the Super Bowl the next afternoon, I got a call from one of my team captains. It was a day off for the team, but she said something was wrong and that everyone on the team was sick. We had eaten at a booster’s house on Friday and apparently had gotten food poisoning. The women’s team had to cancel Monday’s game and it was Saturday before everyone was back at practice. However, with no Monday game, I went out recruiting. We were in the middle of the season and I had to recruit the holes that graduation would cause. No illness is allowed in February.
Things have really changed since those days of the mid 1990s. Germ awareness is posted on every bathroom door. You walk into a doctor’s waiting room and half the room is wearing surgical masks. My own son, Sam, is so freaked out about the possibility of germs, his hands look like prunes from scrubbing them with germ-killing soap.
I personally felt ill at halftime of the Washburn game last week, when we trailed by 20 points. The way I felt had nothing to do with germs. It’s a good thing I stuck it out. We didn’t win, but I’d have missed a 45-point half. That doesn’t happen often at Washburn. Recently, I saw pictures in a magazine of Don Meyer, the coach at Northern State University, working from a wheel chair. He has more career wins than any collegiate men’s coach. A severe car wreck and cancer couldn’t put him on the sideline. Coaches may not be the smartest people in a school or on a college campus, but we are a tough group. If Sam survives childhood, maybe he can become a coach and save his hands from all that soap.