Impact of Gary Austin
Great coaches teach lessons that far outlast the playing field. Gary Austin was just such a coach. As a youngster playing in the New Albany Youth Football League I was always in awe that we would play our games on Buerk Field, the home of the high school Bulldogs. It was a field that both my grandfather and my father once played on, and I dreamed of one day putting on the red and black and taking my place in school history alongside them. And I was especially in awe of the man who coached the team, Gary Austin.
During a youth league game I suffered a severe right ankle sprain. My foot was wrenched badly and the joint permanently weakened. (I still have some issues even to this day.) At the time I was afraid that it would never heal and that I would never get to play for the Bulldogs. I recall - vividly - one Saturday morning when a car pulled up into the driveway and Gary Austin appeared at the door! I was shocked. It turns out that my father had contacted him about my ankle and my fears. He showed up that morning to teach me how to strengthen my ankle and how to tape it properly for support. There I was, a gangly eleven year old sitting on the couch and Gary Austin, New Albany's varsity football coach(!), was kneeling on my living room floor and taping my ankle. When he finished, still on one knee, he looked up at me and said with a seriousness that pierced my heart, "Now, are you going to come play for me someday?" He could have asked me to walk barefoot across broken glass at that point and I would have gladly done so. As I recall I responded with a hearty, "Yes, sir!"
I am getting emotional now as I recall the moment. A young boy, full of optimism and hope, meets a coach who was not too self-important to make a house call on a undersized and underweight future bench-rider. It was a gesture that, in part, helped chart the course of my life. I went on to play for Coach Austin, but I never rode the bench. I gave him everything I had on the field. I was not the best player he ever had - by a large margin; there were so many much more gifted and talented than I; but I was able to give him one last gift as a coach. Of all the players he had over his 20 years at the helm, many all-conference or all-state, I was the last player of his to receive such an honor as I was selected as a member of the Academic All-State team in 1983. I treasure the photo taken that day and I still have a copy. He retired from coaching my senior season.
Years later I asked him about that so-long-ago visit to my home. He remembered it and joked he was glad he had coached long enough to let me keep my promise. I don't think he ever really knew how special his "visit" was.
As time passed and I became a man, many teachers and coaches became friends, as did Coach Austin; but of all the coaches I transitioned to know on a first-name basis, I could never bring myself to refer to Gary Austin by anything other than "Coach."
Coach, thank you for the memories, and for teaching me lessons, many of which you had no idea you were teaching. May you rest in peace. You will be missed, but you will not be forgotten. I loved you, Coach. I hope you knew that, I think you did.