High school can be tough sometimes. Real tough. Things…positive things, negative things…just things can be felt so intensely. Those who are lucky have navigators to help steer them through the rough waters. Sometimes, it’s a parent, a grandparent, an older sibling. Sometimes, it’s a teacher.
And sometimes, it’s a coach.
These are the recollections of one such navigator who, for 35 years, guided entire teams of kids through some of the most memorable moments of their lives. This time, it’s his story, told in his words and his way, as it very well deserves to be.
THE TENDEREST MERCIES
Gail Crawford didn’t exactly plan to be a teacher, let alone an Eads High School coach with more than a handful of state championships and state runner-ups to his name.
A quiet and friendly, slender man with a face sunburned from his daily 12:30 golf game and a deep voice made slightly raspy from “too much coaching, too much yelling and, well, too much smoking”, he sits in a straight backed chair at his kitchen
table, his posture as straight as that chair, his arms folded across his chest as he considers the life he’s lived so far.
As he speaks over the next few hours, some memories come on so strong and sudden that all he can do is sit, silent, and reflect as they pass on by. Other times, the memories come in slow and single file. And those are the ones he shares.
During his own high school years at Liberty High School about 90 miles north of here, Mr. Crawford had the well-earned reputation for being a talented athlete in all four sports, a reputation he downplays as just a function of coming from a small school.
After high school, the next step was college. “My older sister went to college,” he says. “My older brother went to college, so I went to college. Then, I came home and said, ‘I’m not going to college.’” But his father didn’t quite agree. “He told me, ‘Yes, you are. This farm can’t support another person.’ My dad was…well…” Crawford grows quiet as a slight smiles comes to his lips. “Anyway,” he says after a moment, “I went back. I didn’t know anyone who went to college to do anything but be a teacher, so that’s what I did.”
After graduation, he came to Eads with the intention of being a coach. “Sports has always been a big part of my life,” he says, “but music was always my first love.” Raised by parents who were deeply religious Baptists, Crawford grew up singing in church. He, his father and his two brothers formed a quartet, singing at people’s funerals, Lions Clubs and other such events in northeastern Colorado where he was raised. They even came to Eads. Once Mr. Crawford moved here, he continued to sing on his own, typically at weddings, or in duets with Sylvia Weeks at funerals, and, of course, the Christmas Cantata with Philomene Liesen.
“I don’t read a note of music,” he says bluntly. “I never could. But God blessed me with an ear to hear the harmony in any song.” He taps his ear and, suddenly, that poignant smile returns. “My dad was the choir leader in church. Sometimes, he’d come with me to practice and help me learn to listen.” The smile remains as his eyes briefly fill with tears. “I’ve been blessed,” he says, more to himself than anyone.
Mr. Crawford—or “Crawf” as friends and former athletes call him--began his career teaching elementary P.E. and 7th grade Social Studies. “I was a scared kid when I started teaching,” he recalls. “There were a lot of things involved. I grew up on a farm with wide open spaces, and when I came here with neighbors so close…it was an adjustment just living in town. I felt like everybody was always watching everything I did. I’m not saying they were—although they might have been. I don’t know. I was just scared of teaching--more than that, I was scared of failing. I was going to get out of it after a few years because it was a lot of stress.” He pauses for a moment and then shrugs. “Eventually, I went to high school and taught Driver’s Ed. I also taught speech and drama because speech was my minor. After a while, I taught…whatever. I even taught Psychology and World History ‘though I never had it in college. I…did what I had to do.”
When asked how it was different then than now, he says, “Eads was bigger when I came here. There were 130 in high school. We played eleven-man football, and that’s what I coached for 2 or 3 years. Then, I was out of it for a few years, but when it went to eight-man, well, I’d played eight-man football, so I went back into coaching. That was a hard change for the community but, once we got into the season, they bought into it. And now we’re six-man.”
Although girls’ sports was slow to take off in many parts of the country, and remains so in some parts today, Eads embraced a sports program for both girls and boys decades ago. “I’ve heard a lot of coaches say they could never coach girls, but my teams…there was no difference. Except for one. I could walk out of practice and tell the girls, ‘Okay, you do this’ and, when I’d come back, they’d be doing it. The boys? I’d come back, and they might be doing what I said or they might just be jacking around.” He pauses, thinking it through. “With a lot of teams I had, especially the girls, there were some real sharp individuals. A lot of people won’t see that as a good thing…you know, they’re supposed to be jocks. But, I’ll tell you what…those girls could adjust to anything I wanted to do so well because…well, they were smart.”
Mr. Crawford recalls the year that things—specifically, the athletic program and his role in the program—had a change in course of direction. It was 1979. “I look back, and that year when Betsy [Barnett] was on the team, things really started to change. We had—we may still have—the record for the most state appearances in girls’ basketball. That year is when we started a run. 1979.” He nods and shifts slightly in his seat as if the energy of the memory makes it a little hard to sit still. “And then, of course, ’84 is when we got our first state championship in track. Then in ’84 or ’85 we were runner up in football… And then ’86 was huge because we won state football. That was big.” His eyes land on a spot on the living room floor not far from where he sits. “That wait time before the game, it was forever. There was a radio show—people would call in. My sister called in to say that Eads was going to win. I just laid on that floor“—he gestures with his head toward the spot—“put my headphones on, plugged in my music and…that’s how I got through it. With music.” He smiles at the thought of that.
When talking about coaching from the distance that the passing of time can provide, Mr. Crawford seems almost removed from it all, as if he’s talking about someone else in another life. “I was a hard coach,” he says. “Any success I had, I credited it to discipline and fundamentals. I wasn’t big on finding a college offense for basketball or…whatever. I just come up with my own, and they were simple. I don’t care how fancy your football and basketball is, if you don’t have the discipline and the fundamentals of skills, it’s not going to work.”
He changes focus to something he seems to have mused over before. “And I think back to some of the little sayings I come up with. One was ‘keep your head up and your feet moving.’ They talk about neck injuries from keeping your head down...? Well, I always felt knee injuries came from having your foot planted. If somebody fell into the side of it or something. So, I told ‘em, keep your feet moving and there’s less a chance of that happening. And when we’d have to practice during play-offs and it was cold, I always worried about their health. And I told them, ‘Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. That will warm up that air.’ Of course, during play-offs, injuries and…well, it’s a mind game. Just how far do I go? Just how much do I risk? But the good Lord was guiding me, and we never had any serious injuries. I was very fortunate that way.”
There’s an unexpected moment of silence and something seems to change in the room. It’s as if—whether consciously or not—Crawford’s opened a door somewhere deep inside and, for whatever reason, has decided to let in a little light. “You know, I don’t watch sports on TV. I get too into it, and then, I’m not watching, I’m working…I’m coaching it and…Well, I just did that for too long. I’m different from most sports people. I coached a lot of sports for a lot of years, but I’m not really a sports fan. After I quit coaching here, I’d go watch the games because I love to watch good players and good teams, but I don’t want the teams close. I don’t care who it is. Just…good players and good teams. I love that.”
The distance for Crawf between then and now suddenly seems shorter. The door inside opens just a little bit more.
“The part of sports that really hurt me was when…bad things would happen,” he says, his voice more intense. “When people just lost all sense of perspective. I hated that. And there’d be times I’d get on officials, and I’d think about what I said and, afterwards, I’d get so embarrassed.” He looks away. “For the most part, I feel good about my conduct. But there were times when I…when that part of sports was just…that part of it really bothered me.”
His face reddens beneath his sunburn. “I was on the Board of Control of CHSAA, and I remember one time… The younger coaches come in. They’re aggressive and, to some degree, you have to be. I used to think that just the egotistical SOBs stay in coaching. But those guys wanted total control—they wanted to have practice over Christmas break.” He shakes his head, trying to make the point. “When I coached, I owned those kids during the season, but I always wanted to let them have their summers. At Christmas, I wanted to let them have their families. It’s just so important.” He stops, his voice thick with emotion as if searching for exactly the right words among the thousands of words that seemed to be in his head right then. “Perspective,” he finally says, his voice almost breaking with conviction. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what I was all about. They’re just kids. Some people—all they talk about is the state championship. And…so, okay. But some people saw that they were just kids and…and I thank God that those people saw it wasn’t all about winning.”
Like someone who’s been underwater for a long time and finally comes to the surface for air, he takes in a deep although somewhat shaky breath and lets it out. “I knew it was time to get out when…well, seasoned isn’t the word. Tired. Tired is the word. I knew it was time to get out when I was just too tired.”
He briefly rubs his face with both hands, rubbing his forehead and eyes and then looks back around as his vision seems to refocus. Although his eyes still brim with tears, he smiles a bit. “But I’ve had former students come back and tell me that it taught them responsibility and discipline. I’ve seen them carry on. I’ve seen them change. And that means so, so much to me.” With that, he takes another deep breath as if relaxing after a long run.
It’s almost noon. His tee-off time with his good friends and golf buddies is approaching. When asked for any parting thoughts, he looks out the window, perhaps not even aware that he’s dropped his arms and is resting his hands on his knees. After a few moments, he answers. “I have deep religious convictions,” he says, “but I’m not a preaching Christian. I’m just not. Still…there’s so much trouble in the world, and I wish I could give people what I’ve been given.” His smile gets a little broader, and even that little bit lights up his face. “I’m grateful. I’ve been so blessed. And I have peace and satisfaction. If I could give anything to anyone, I would give them that.”