Remembering a coach who loved us

Unknowingly, Gordie Ross practiced 40 years ago the building-men-for-others coaching championed today by Joe Ehrmann

(Rose-Marie Culp )
July 23, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Maybe you'd like to come down the hallway of the junior high school I attended — we called it the Intermediate School — to meet Mr. Gordon T. "Gordie" Ross, a barrel-chested man stuffed into a plaid sport coat, his thick neck trapped by the tab collar of a white shirt and striped tie. He's moon-jawed and pie-faced, with thick brown hair, and as serious as granite block about teaching biology to 7th graders, tolerating no foolishness from the wise guys in Beatle boots.

I just turned the Wayback Machine to 1967, when Mr. Ross had arrived fresh from the nearby state teachers' college. He'd played football there and had been hired to coach the sport in the public schools in my hometown. Of course, that marked him as a softie. Coaches who also taught classes were not generally feared by students.

But Mr. Ross wasn't one of those football coaches who went through the motions of teaching. He was as committed to helping us gain an understanding of cell structure as he was to training us in the fundamentals of blocking; he saw all of it as teaching. He was one of those men who believed — and insisted — that you should strive to be excellent in everything you do. As a golfer, he recorded three holes-in-one.

But don't get the idea that Gordon T. Ross was a crazy perfectionist or one of those serious men who are absolutely no fun. Just the opposite: Gordie Ross was a jokester, a ham, the conjurer of comic relief when a football practice got too tense or a biology lesson too complex. So he had that going for him, too — hard work and laughter in excellent balance.

Mr. Ross died July 13. He was 68.

I wanted to use the occasion of his passing to say something about teachers, and remind them about the difference they can make in a kid's life.

You might feel unappreciated or figure that, with the passing of time, your students move on, grow up, get busy and either forget about you or remember only the bad or goofy stuff.

But if you tried to make a difference — with something you said or something you did, in a moment, or over the course of years — you probably did.

How do I know? Because I remember vividly the interest Gordie Ross and a few others took in me and in my classmates 40 years ago; they went above and beyond, encouraging kids who struggled or who were having a wretched time at home. They were mentors as well as teachers.

In particular, Mr. Ross understood high school football as a proving ground for masculinity, and he was a shepherd to a lot of boys who struggled with that. He was top-notch as the assistant coach who turned players into teammates, too. Looking back, Gordie Ross was a building-men-for-others coach in the manner championed today by former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann.

I asked my brother, Eddie, what he took from Mr. Ross's long career, and he wrote down a few things after the funeral: "That careful balance between wanting to be liked by everyone and knowing that a coach has to keep some distance in order to keep control. ... That some people really want to help kids and are willing to work for very little to do it."

The words of a character from a George Bernard Shaw play are often repeated, with sarcastic glee, by people who take cracks at teachers, teachers unions, the education establishment: "Remember: those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

I've heard this used by people who see all sorts of societal failings around them but who likely never lift a finger to help kids, except perhaps their own. They resent their tax dollars going to the public education of other peoples' children. And I suspect a lot of them have lingering resentments about teachers; they either didn't have — or refuse to acknowledge — someone like Gordie Ross. They were unloved.

So, there, I said it. Few of us speak the language of love in the context of teaching or coaching. But that's what makes the difference, the presence of love — love of knowledge, love of teaching, love of students, love of life. That's what we had with Gordie Ross, wonderful teacher and coach. He loved us.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM.

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