How do you measure the worth of a man’s life? If it is by the number of other people whose lives that man has touched personally, and in a positive way, a strong argument can be made that few people will ever match the impact made by my high school coach, Mr. Newton (he’d never accept any other form of address from his athletes) who passed away yesterday at the age of 88. His genius was in forcing people to do what they did not think they were capable of, by setting extremely high expectations and stubbornly refusing to waver from them. He did this for, I am sure, tens of thousands of individuals. And this accounts for only those he coached directly. It does not include fellow coaches who learned from coaching against him, from reading his books, from hearing him speak at clinics. It does not include all the athletes who were coached by a York alum, or by a Coach who studied York’s program in order to improve their own.
My own story is simultaneously unique to me and the most quintessential of all cross country personal narratives: I entered high school desperately wanting to be recognized for being good at something in the realm of athletics, since, at under 5 feet and less than 90 pounds, I’d yet to make any team that had cuts and was routinely last picked for the pickup basketball and playground football games. I wasn’t a great middle school cross country or track athlete either (working my way up to 7th man on my 8th grade team and finishing middle school with PRs of 2:40 and 6:06 – yes, I still remember). Most of the six guys in front of me (all except my twin brother) left running to pursue more glorious sports at high school (to bust another misconception, even at York, Cross Country did not offer status even close to the same level of the traditional glory sports of football and soccer). I joined the summer running program before my freshmen season, and that made a big difference. I found myself as the #4 freshmen on the team, getting to represent the frosh squad in a few of the invites we attended that had a freshmen level. And our team would win! Having a taste of that success during the insecure first months of high school was enough to convince me that the pain of workouts and the grogginess of early mornings was worth it. Still, after my first XC season, I nearly was convinced by a very persuasive wresting coach to try out for that sport in the winter (they needed someone for the 100 and under division who would win half the time by disqualification since many schools couldn’t fill that role). As my Hinsdale guys know (I’ve told the story lots) what prevented me from doing so was fear of Mr. Newton. I went into his office to tell him of my intended plans, but before I could say anything he looked at me and said, “Twin – 45 minute run today.” And I said, “uh…OK, thanks, Mr. Newton” and left his office with the dawning realization that I’d just resigned myself to 3 and a half more years of that tough, tough sport of distance running.
By then, some of the upperclassmen on the team started to adopt me, and the newfound popularity of getting invited to hang out with older teammates was another factor motivating me to stick with it. My sophomore year, a foreign exchange student from Norway named Marius Bakken came to attend York and run with our team. He lived with a family whose home was 3 blocks from mine and which I passed each day on the walk to school, so my brother and I got the unique privilege of walking home from practice most days with a guy who went on to become one of the greatest distance runners in York, Illinois, and Norwegian history. My own confidence grew. I remember how proud I felt when I first made the top 12 sophomore year and was issued a “York top 12” shirt –I could not wait to go to school the next day and walk around the halls showing it off. Mr. Newton very carefully designed a system which promoted competition within the ranks. The top 7 guys were anointed ‘group 1’ and given matching shirts. The next 7 guys were group 2 and had a different shirt, while #15-21 were called ‘the emerging 7’ and got yet another shirt. If you missed a practice or bombed a meet, you had to give up your shirt to the guy who was replacing you. There were also the ‘1000 mile club’ turtlenecks given to guys who could show documentation of having run the full millennium between the start of summer running and labor day, along with the even more prestigious 2000 and 3000 mile versions (for doing it again junior and senior year).
For the parents reading this, I think it is important to acknowledge this, too: Mr. Newton’s rules were ironclad. Most parents of his runners were not thrilled with the sacrifices he demanded of his athletes. York runners did not go on spring break. Practice was mandatory, at 7:00 am every day of break except Sunday. College visits were not excused absences. I remember how frustrated my parents were when Mr. Newton informed them that he would not permit us to miss both a Friday and a Saturday to visit a college – doing so would constitute two unexcused absences and result in removal from the team, no matter that this was two of his top seven athletes. He could also be incredibly harsh in dressing down athletes, sometimes in front of their peers. If you let the team down, he was going to let you hear about it, and often in front of the whole team such that we’d all draw the lesson.
I share this not as criticism but in an attempt to capture Mr. Newton in all his complexity, and to remind us all that to have a remarkable record like York many difficult choices had to be made. No, you could not leave practice early for a band concert. Decide which of the two was more important to you. You’d better not be late. The only excuse was if you were stopped by the train, which Mr. Newton claimed he would verify. You got one tardy. On the second, you were out.
And the workouts and mileage! I know many people who did not run for York have seen the film “The Long Green Line” and while that documentary does a great job of capturing how charismatic and motivational Mr. Newton was, my one critique is that the movie never really delved into just how hard the training was. I sometimes wonder how I managed. At Hinsdale Central, our long run is 90 minutes, which is one of the more challenging workouts we do. At York, if I heard 45-30-15 announced as the workout, I would feel a wave of relief. That was our easy day. There were several summer days where I ran over 20 miles. One week I ran over 120 miles. Amazingly, aside from a minor injury that sidelined me for a few weeks after the Conference XC Championships my sophomore year, I managed to remain healthy. I don’t recall rates of injury being any higher than they are for our team currently, despite running crazy high mileage. My theory is that injuries were not discussed (we did not roll, take ice baths, use bands, do general strength workouts, take cross training days, or even do much static stretching) – it was just assumed you could do the mileage and so since we believed it could be done, it was done. We ran 25*400 with one minute rest every Monday all summer. We did 12*800, 30*200, the ‘hour continual run’ (see how far you can run in an hour). Our labor day weekend consisted of a Friday workout of 1*1600, 10*400, 10*200 followed by the annual intrasquad meet on Saturday and then the fabled 2-man 10-mile relay on Monday (you and your partner trade off running 400s until you’ve each done twenty – proud to say my brother and I defeated the sophomore team of Don Sage and Pete Cioni when we were seniors!)
In my case, I did all that hard work and ended up with the most heartbreaking outcome imaginable, a one-point loss in the 1997 state XC meet my senior year. But that did not mean it wasn’t worth it – far from it, in fact. Here is what I wrote back then, as an earnest seventeen-year-old:
Like most York guys, though, time and experience has allowed me to more deeply appreciate what a true gift it was to be able to run for Mr. Newton. The payoff could be quite tangible – I’m pretty sure having ‘Captain-York Cross Country’ on my resume got me my interview at Hinsdale Central – but more significant has been the sense of self Mr. Newton helped me and so many others cultivate. He would often promote “commitment to excellence” as a guiding virtue, and would encourage us never to settle for average in any endeavor we’d go on to pursue. He helped me develop a work ethic and a belief in my own abilities that helped me get to where I am today –a high school teacher and cross country/track coach, the surest evidence of all of how significant Mr. Newton has been to my life.