A life lesson from Coach

It was freezing. I’d guess it was 35 degrees outside on the campus of UNC-Charlotte and the windchill must have been around 25. Myself and the other members of the Men’s Tennis Team were out practicing because we didn’t have any indoor tennis courts and we had a big tournament coming up.  And because, we thought, our coach was a psycho.

It was one of those days where you couldn’t feel your hands and your nose felt like it was going to fall off. I remember it was even hard to see because of the steam coming off our heads.  Swinging the racket was a difficult task on its own due to the many layers of clothing we had on. It was miserable. And we were expressing our misery loud and clear.

Coach Boykin giving Kuchma and I advice during a doubles match. One of my all time favorite photos.

We were all between the ages of 19 and 22. Coach was likely in his 50’s, though I was still too young to be able to gauge how old people were. Still not good at that.  But when you’re 20, things like that don’t cross your mind. He was just, “coach”.

Actually, I should point out that this particular coach was, is, one of the best men I’ve ever met.  As sincere and hard-working as they come. Passionate about tennis as I’ve ever seen anyone about anything. A true student of the sport. And he had a heart of gold. I was able to spend my final year of college as his assistant coach (year five due to a transfer from a small school to UNC-Charlotte and all my credits didn’t transfer over). I learned more that year from him than I think I did during any of my years of attending class.

“This is insane!”…”It’s colder out here than the village Sasha came from!”

Cars that would drive by would slow down and roll their windows down to make sure their eyes weren’t deceiving them. The wind was picking up and occasionally we’d even whiff balls. It was brutal.

And then Coach, who was over twice our age, took off his jacket. He just paused from feeding balls, took off his jacket exposing the sweatshirt he had on under it, picked his racket back up and started feeding balls again. Didn’t say a word.

Some of us noticed, though not enough to stop bitching and complaining. About five minutes later, he paused again, took off his sweatshirt, picked his racket back up and started feeding balls again. At this point he only had a short sleeve collared shirt on.

“Coach is losing it.”…”What’s he doing?”…”Maybe the cold is making him finally go senile.”

We complained a little less. But we didn’t stop. Just because our coach was going crazy didn’t mean we weren’t still cold.

Then he paused for the final time. At this point we all stopped, mouths wide open, amazed that he might go one step further. Sure enough, he took off his shirt, this time with nothing underneath. He picked up his racket and for the rest of practice he coached us with no shirt on. “Topless”, as my foreign teammates called it which I always thought to be hilarious.

By the end of practice his chest was bright red and its possible he was on the brink of frostbite. He never said a word about it. Never complained. Just kept coaching as if nothing was different. That last half hour was the quietest half hour of UNC-Charlotte tennis practice ever, I’m certain of that.

With that one act he proved he was tougher than all of us young strong kids put together. And he earned every last bit of our respect.

I can’t say if we won our next match or not. But that moment changed me forever and for that, Coach Jim Boykin, I thank you.