04 February 2014

Mother Lily’s Advice When I Almost Quit Football in 1991

Who was it who said that the best actors were not in the Oscars? Instead, they are in the teaching profession. No disrespect to the latter. What that statement was trying to imply was that teachers, due to the nature to the profession, often have to cloak their real personalities and their deepest feelings.

Same goes for coaching, especially at the basic education level. The job is not for the immature because essentially, as a support system between coach and player, the relationship is very much one-way.

It can be draining at the physical, intellectual and even the emotional levels. It is not for the weak of personality or for the selfish.

I would have won more Oscars than Dustin Hoffman for the number of times I had to put up a poker face or the front of a hard man when inside I was anything but. Doubt and vulnerability, coaches will attest to, are like viruses that can spread quickly within a team. These are two things better left unseen.


Her reasoning was not rocket science; but it was the sort of thinking that eluded me because I was so immersed in the unfortunate spate of events that hit my team. It was something that I failed to see because I was also probably unconsciously blaming myself for events that I really had no control of.
In early 1991, I was at my most vulnerable after having gone through two traumatic events that would have broken other people. Two of my boys were killed within 23 days by separate vehicular accidents.

The first was a senior who was run over in early January by a bus in front of school while we were training for the Southern Tagalog Regional Athletic Association (STRAA). I was among the first at the ER of the hospital to which he was rushed; and to this day, the sight of a tire mark on his belly is still vividly etched in my mind.

No more than 23 days later, while my team and I were at the STRAA in Cavite City, we received word that a sophomore in the U-16 team was also killed in another vehicular accident in his hometown of Tanauan.

Only four of my boys knew; and between ourselves, we all agreed to keep the bad news from the team until after the tournament ended. To this day, I have nothing but admiration for the four boys, who had to pretend that nothing was amiss while having to go through the rigours of tournament football.

In fact, it was I who was going to pieces inside my head. I started coaching in 1982, and in the nine years hence, none of my boys had suffered anything worse than a sprain. Two deaths within the space of a mere 23 days was a bit too much to bear.

I slept fitfully, feared for a third and became overly protective of my players. Watching them cross streets sent chills up my spine, a sensation that died down only when they reached the pavement at the other side.

Tired from the Spartan conditions of athletes’ quarters in Cavite City, stressed by having to keep a dreadful secret from everyone else and burdened by the feeling of impeding doom, I made a decision to leave coaching at the end of the schoolyear.

I loved coaching, make no mistake about it! Although essentially a one-way street, there was no greater reward than seeing an erstwhile clumsy beginner morph in time into a skilful player before my eyes.

But at this time, I was not right inside my head; and feared for my own sanity. I was grasping for answers, but there was none, not even straws. Because most of my players were seniors and were graduating at the end of the schoolyear, anyway, I thought that it would be a good time to go.

At the end of a week in Cavite City, a week during which my boys probably outdid themselves in managing to finish third despite the circumstances, we finally broke the news to the rest of the team. There was catharsis of a sort; and the look on everyone’s face I will never forget.

The parents of Sid Villegas, one of my players, had also come to visit the quarters. While everyone was out freshening up outside, I had a moment alone inside the team’s room with his mother Lily.

It was to her that I opened up on something that I could not obviously tell the boys. I told her how stressed I was by recent events and that I was planning to step down from coaching at the end of the schoolyear.

Her reply was simple and carried the logic of someone looking in from the outside. “Why?” she asked me. “You had nothing to do with either accident. It would be different if they happened on the football field; but they did not. You should continue!”

Her reasoning was not rocket science; but it was the sort of thinking that eluded me because I was so immersed in the unfortunate spate of events that hit my team. It was something that I failed to see because I was also probably unconsciously blaming myself for events that I really had no control of.

Trust Mother Lily to say the right thing! A prayerful woman, she ended the conversation with an advice that saw me through two more decades of coaching, “Pray!”

[Footnote: In the late nineties and the early years of the new millennium, we started getting accidents on the field which invariably ended up in someone being taken to the hospital. Roy Dimaculangan, the Sports Manager at the time, pointed out to me that the accidents seemed to happen every year during the months of January and/or February. I started concluding each training session with short prayer services during the months of January and February. The accidents stopped.]

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