Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun way back in the mid-sixties, and she articulated the concept as well as anybody ever did. "Do we measure a man when times are good and things are easy for everybody? No, child, when you measure a man you take into account the hills and valleys he's come through to get to wherever he is."
Down through the ages poets and philosophers have wrestled with this question as often as the rest of us eat lunch, but how many among us can BE the definition of a mensch?
In the storied annals of Connecticut high school track and field, few people have personified Hansberry's words better than Hillhouse Track Coach Gary Moore. Diagnosed with kidney failure in early 2010, Coach Moore, family man, had little choice than to do what his doctor told him to start...the next day! That is, report to St. Raphael's in New Haven and start dialysis.
He described the news from the doctors as devastating, but things don't stop...they continue, and Coach Moore and his wife, Michele, decided that would be their path and purpose....to carry on. Michele is a Chemistry teacher at Hillhouse and Coach's biggest fan.
Coach still thinks of himself as an athlete, even though dialysis three times a week obviously gets in the way. As a high school student at nearby West Haven High School, class of '88, he was an all-state high jumper and decathlete and was all-state in football, too, and he continued to participate in those sports at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. One day, late in his senior year there, he went to see a track meet at Hillhouse against his alma mater, West Haven. He volunteered to work with a few athletes from Hillhouse and was surprised by how much they improved. Working with athletes energized him and he applied for, and got, a job as an assistant coach there. For a couple of years he handled the girls and boys during the indoor track season, and took over the girls during the outdoor season in 1995. Who knew at the time that scenario would lead to a nomination as National Coach of the Year in 2008?
Much of his coaching philosophy was born during his formidable years, which he still holds dear. He credits his mom and dad for instilling in him the value of mental and emotional discipline and steady application to the tasks at hand, and his athletes will tell you that is a big reason Hillhouse consistently turns out great people.
He gives a lot of credit to Bob Davis, who offered him the job as assistant coach, for giving him the opportunity to work with track athletes. Davis allowed Moore to do what he wanted to do and how he wanted it done. Coach Moore took that freedom and created discipline. Pretty neat if you can do it. Coach Moore is rightfully proud of the program he has built, and he is right in saying, "Something special happened here."
In most ways Michele and their two children, Leah, 8. and Gary, Jr., 7, are his biggest influences. Regarding Leah and Gary, you can hear the pride in his voice as he points out their eagerness to participate in a Hillhouse practice even during a school vacation week. This is not a convenient baby-sitting arrangement...they want to be there, part of the action. They want to be with their dad. All four members of the Moore household have strong Christian faith, and Coach says that faith is always on his mind, whether it is making decisions about his team, or molding his life style, or shaping the lives of the people around him. It helps him get through the tough times.
When he first got to Hillhouse he realized the culture had to be altered to make sure the athletes kept their heads in the game and their emotions in check. To stay in control. Otherwise, he said, there is chaos when everybody is doing their own thing, and he was able to communicate those ideas to his athletes. The more they won, the more they listened and worked hard. The more they listened and worked hard, the more they won...the followers of track and field in Connecticut know the rest of this ongoing success story.
Coach is quick to point out that his philosophy of working with teens is color-blind, and he applies this way of thinking to his job as the Guidance Department's Academic Advisor for all athletes at Hillhouse. He looks at each person who shows up to compete for Hillhouse as just that...a person first who wants to become a good athlete. Sure, he says, there is a considerable natural talent pool at Hillhouse, but natural talent is useless unless it is channeled and focused in a positive direction. He says, "It's deeper than natural talent." That's where mental and emotional discipline come into play for high school athletes, because coach knows that everybody who buys into his program will take those lessons into their lives and apply them long after graduating from Hillhouse.
After graduating from Hillhouse many of his former athletes, both men and women, stay in almost constant contact. He says they use any means available...e-mail, texts, Facebook, whatever. Two former athletes come quickly to mind: Terrell Wilks, graduate of the University of Florida, is now under contract with Nike, and is currently on the indoor tour in Europe. Recently he finished 3rd in a world-class 100 meter dash in London. Stays in touch with his high school coach; Monica Hargrove, under contract with Under Armor, hopes to make the 2012 Olympic Team as a 400 meter runner. She just made an Under Armor commercial with Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Ray Lewis. You've seen it, but as Coach says, you just don't know the woman in the commercial by name. Yet. Stays in touch with her high school coach.
When speaking of his former athletes, Coach Moore is especially proud of their graduation rate from college. As he says, it's good they got athletic scholarships, but it's more impressive that most of them followed through and graduated from college, even if running or jumping did not define their careers. That's another part of his philosophy...the value of an education.
They all know something special happened here.
His practices are demanding and his standards are high, but that only attracts people to Coach Gary Moore. They know he sees the person first, and will accept the person first and develop the athlete after that. As he says, after the athlete stops competing, the person remains, and what counts is what kind of person is left.
See? As Coach says, "It's not about me...it's about the athletes and the team." And that defines his unselfish giving of himself.
So at the end of the practice, the meet, the season, or the high school career, the record is hardly the important factor when measuring success. It's what kind of people emerge from his program. And when you take the measure of the man who helped deliver good people out of Hillhouse High School Athletics, thank Coach Gary Moore, who set the best example of all...to carry on when life may not be going so well.
Coaches Gary and Michelle Moore on the floor at Hillhouse before a recent meet instructing their athlete. Photographs (c) MySportsResults.com