Friday, December 17, 2010

Coach Riehle

A fine man died yesterday. His name was John Riehle.  He was the football coach at Evanston Township High School for more than a few years.  My son Kevin played for him and was proud to be a Wildkit.

By football standards he was a very, very good coach.  Top twenty teams.  A final four in the state tournament.  45 full scholarship players.  Lots of conference championships.  4 of his players made the NFL.

It’s a clich√© to say it but John was a molder of young men.  He was an old school coach.  He could yell with the best of them and could stare down a battalion of Marines.  He wasn’t soft.  He’d call people out with his trademarked raspy bellow. He got  in a player's  face and then ten minutes later he had his arm around the player gently encouraging him.  He demanded excellence on the field and on the classroom.  He found places for his guys to play even if it wasn’t at the D-I scholarship schools.  He was for his guys and wanted his guys to be for him.  They'd walk through a wall for him.

Not long ago I was with a guy who played for John at Oak Park River Forest High School.  He started describing his high school coach.  And I knew immediately who he was talking about.  I said, "You played for John Riehle didn't you." He said, "How did you know?  I didn't mention his name."  I said, "Who else could it be?"  And then we laughed.  He was one of a kind. 

John always made it a point to make sure each senior started at least one game during their career even if they weren't all that good. He wanted everyone to be able  say that "I started for Evanston'.  It was one of the ways he emphasized being a 'team' above all else. 

If you were going to be late for practice his players knew that a phone call was in order.  My son still says that John’s phone number is still indelibly etched in his head.  

I knew John off the field.  He was a good man.  Kind.  Caring. Intense. He chose to work at Evanston calling it ‘the finest highest school anyone could work at’.  He loved the racial and economic diversity of ETHS.  He thought sports could cultivate a spirit of community that nothing else could quite accomplish. I think he was right.

John was a man of faith.  It wasn’t an ‘in your face’ kind of thing.  He just lived out what he believed to be true and supported those of us who tried to do faith related activities in and around the school.

When I heard John died I got very sad.  I hadn’t seen him in quite awhile.  But I never forgot him. In fact, even this fall I used some John Riehle stories in a talk I gave at a middle school. He was a larger than life figure.  He loved my son.  He coached him up. He gave him an opportunity to play high school football at the highest, highest level in the state of Illinois. And his teams just didn’t play the game.  They played with pride, with skill, with attitude and with a chip on their shoulder. And they became a team in all the best senses of that  word.  They were expected to succeed but never at the cost of their integrity or good sportsmanship.  John knew there was a way to both win and lose.  You left it all out on the field and walked away with head held high.  

So, this blog is for you John.  Thanks for impacting my life.  Thanks for touching my son’s life in profound ways.  Thanks for Friday night and Saturday afternoon memories.  Thanks for a life well lived.  You did it right. You've left a legacy.  It doesn't get any better than that.

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