In Field of Dreams when Moonlight Graham talks about how some of our most important moments in our lives happen so fast we don't even know they're happening, and then they "...Sweep past us like a stranger in a crowd," he wasn't talking about Griswold cross country coach Gerry Chester. But he could have been.
Believe it or not, Coach Chester, at 5' 9" and 100 pounds as a freshman at Norwich Free Academy in the fall of 1965, tried out for football and lasted all of three days. The next day was a day that showed what Moonlight Graham meant. Chester approached the XC coach and asked to join the team. The coach said sure, but we have a meet today. Such a conversation would be unheard of these days, but running in Converse high-tops that day in 1965 Gerry Chester's coaching career saw the light of day for the first time. Significant? Of course, and at this point in his life Coach Chester is wise enough to know it.
He recalls the hard time he had finishing the course that day, in spite of the fact courses were shorter than they are today, but he was hooked. It took a large dose of stick-to-it-iveness to finish that day, but he saw something about himself for the first time...another kind of discipline, another kind of competitiveness, a more serious kind of fun. As he recalls that fateful day and season, he didn't realize at the time that part of his life was about to be defined.
By the time he graduated from NFA he knew he wanted to coach. By the time he graduated from UConn in 1974 he had known St. Bernard's XC Head Coach Doug Sharples from his neighborhood and Sharples took him on as an assistant XC coach that fall. Not only did Coach Sharples take Coach Chester in as an assistant coach, he also asked Coach Chester to baby sit for his two sons. Clearly, trust between these two coaches was established early in their relationship.
Then the fun started.
Chester was teaching at St. Patrick's parochial school in Norwich at the time, but as much as he liked the classroom, coaching XC and track at St Bernard's became the best part of his day. Years later in 1984 he began teaching at Ellis Tech and in 1987 he got the chance to coach his own varsity team there. Not only did he coach his own varsity XC team that fall, but he coached them to his first state championship. Beginner's luck? Think again. While at Ellis Tech, his teams won 4 more state championships. Also during his tenure at Ellis Tech, in 1992, to be exact, the CITCA named him Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year. In 1995 the CHSCA followed suit with its COY honors. When he left Ellis Tech for Griswold in 1999 nothing changed except the fields on which he coached because the honors just kept coming his way.
Twice Region 1 of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association named him Cross Country Coach of the Year. That's right, twice, in 2002 and 2006.
In his own modest words, "Every award that I've ever received is because of all the hard working athletes I've been fortunate to work with over the years." True, but the unspoken concept here is his coach's role of inspiring, nurturing, and motivating the young men who present themselves to him each season. Someone must put it all together to coach all those winning teams.
Oh yes...let's not forget the national award he received in 2006...NHSACA named him National Cross Country Coach of the Year.
Coach Chester readily admits the debt of gratitude he owes Doug Sharples for setting his professional example. Wise men know who their models are. Coach Chester learned how to coach and run a successful running program. Sharples taught Coach Chester "How to win with class and lose with dignity." How true about both men.
In Coach Sharples words, "We have coached against each other, with each other, and run distance running clinics in many states. We have [known each other] for 43 years, and the thing I remember most about Gerry is the fact that he is wonderful husband, a fantastic father, dedicated teacher and a wonderful coach - in that order."
Another inspiration to Coach Chester was his coach at UConn, the late Bob Kennedy, himself a strong influence on his runners. With his running career over at UConn, Chester told Kennedy he wanted to coach someday, and Kennedy told him, "Treat every athlete that you coach like he was the best athlete on your team." Wise men know what advice to follow.
So while he shaped his professional life, his personal life was also moving along quite well, thank you. In 1987 he married his wife Kathy. So Coach remembers 1987 with great fondness for obvious reasons.
In 1989 his daughter Krystyna was born and in 1990 along came his son Erik. Family life is more important than anything else in his life and he is very proud of that. As Doug Sharples noted about Coach Chester, family is more important, and Coach Chester valued the time his two children were with him at practices and meets, but because he devoted so much time to coaching his athletes, he felt he was missing part of his kids' growing up. So in the spring of 2008 when Coach Chester and Kathy knew their son would be running that fall for Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Coach "retired" from coaching so he and his wife could travel and watch their son compete in cross country meets.
So off they went.
Over the next four years he and Kathy travelled over 16,000 miles, all over the northeast, to watch Erik run for Seton Hall. Would he do it again? In a heartbeat. As he said, "...it was worth every second."
So, after 14 years teaching science at Ellis Tech and 14 years teaching biology at Griswold High, Coach is back with the stopwatch this season (2012). His coaching philosophy, "...comes from what I've learned about life over the years. I try to instill in all of my athletes that running is a metaphor for life. Not only do you get out of it what you put into it, but in life as in running, there will always be tough times, and to survive and be successful-somehow, some way, you've got to find a way to finish. Distance running is the greatest developer of self discipline that I know."
In the 21 years from 1987 to 2007, his teams in cross country won 13 state titles...5 at Ellis Tech and 8 at Griswold including consecutive wins from 2000-2007 and 14 cross country conference titles. His teams qualified for New England level meets 11 different times and placed in the top 3 on three separate occasions.
Coach has been busy during the spring seasons as well. In track & field his teams have won four state titles and took home the coveted State Open Championship in 2005.
All told, he coached 155 all-conference athletes, 63 all-state athletes, 31 all New England athletes, 3 All Americans, and 2 Foot Locker finalists, one of whom is Tradelle Ward who called Coach his second father. When Tradelle was asked to offer a comment about Coach he offered an 800 word Essay of Praise. Although it's too long to include here, at one point he recalled a conversation he had with Coach when Ward was 14 years old, and which shows how running is indeed a metaphor for life. In that 'phone conversation Ward told Coach he was satisfied with exceeding a goal he had set for himself, but Coach told Ward "The day you're satisfied is the day you should quit."
Fast forward to the Foot Locker Finals, and a lifelong friendship.
"Besides the day I married my wife and the birth of my two children - the greatest memories of my life have come from this sport. While winning championships and having the opportunity to work with national caliber athletes like Gavin Coombs and Tradelle Ward was something I'll never forget. Probably even more meaningful over the years was watching young athletes set goals, work hard, and achieve success- sometimes for the first time in their lives. Coaching in this sport has given me so many experiences that money just can't buy."
Whew! Not bad for a young man who, a long time ago, thought he was a football player.