Nearly four years ago now (well, three and three quarters), I learned of the boating accident that left my high school basketball coach in a wheelchair and killed his son Neal. I posted about the accident fleetingly here. The intervening years have been both swift and unkind. There was the deep, deep depression that came with his son's death and with his own transmogrified body, the latter no doubt a constant reminder of the former. There was the enormously difficult therapy that returned movement to his arms. There was the bittersweet ceremony a couple years ago to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his first state championship, where his dejection was palpable. But it was the cancer that got him.
Those of you who knew Coach Ricker won't learn anything new here, but a few details bear remembering, especially his combination of toughness and tenderness when it came to his players. The same man who opened his home to our point guard when she was having family trouble also slammed opened the van doors for his players, commanding us to get out and run on steaming summer asphalt after a particularly bad performance at team camp. And run we did. We ran for four years straight. This man caused me vastly more physical pain (through just this sort of team punishment) than anyone, even Pat Summitt. He raked in two state championships during our time there (even more in coming years). And he spurred immense emotional and personal growth.
I first met Coach Ricker when I was in the eighth grade and he came to see my grade-school team play. I knew he was there, and I knew he was there to get a look at me for the high school team, one of the best in that part of the state. I was so nervous that I ended up hyperventilating in a paper bag. He came up to me afterwards and said "we just need to get you in shape." I breathed relief into my bag.
And get me in shape we did. That summer he made me and LO, the other almost-freshman player who would start that year, learn all the plays in one night at overnight team camp in Pulaski. I sat sniffling with LO, our sleeping bags curled up around us, while the two seniors impatiently gave us a crash course on all the offenses. He laughed at me when I got kicked out of a game for fighting with a girl twice my size. He once told me to box out, a command that resulted in the opponent's tooth being knocked out at the three point line. The next season my own tooth got knocked out by one of the big-haired Erwin girls, and he knelt by me and calmed my panicked shrieks.
Half time was his most animated, the locker room his theater: he dented lockers, broke clipboards, threw things, shredded game plans. The man had a temper. It always worked, his activating that temper: he got our attention, we played our guts out. His neck veins stood out as much when he was angry as when he was amused. Sometimes he could be both at once, like when he got thrown out of a game at Oak Ridge, bought popcorn, and returned to the stands to heckle the referees. The man was full of life, drive, love. He loved his job, he lived the game, and he drove and loved his players.
And we loved him. Love him still.