If Hollywood had made a Vince Lombardi biopic during my high school years, our varsity football coach, John McHargue, would have been perfectly cast in the title role of the iconic Green Bay Packers coach. Not only did he physically embody Lombardi’s solidly built military bearing, but he also reflected his tough, demanding, and disciplined manner as well. You could, as the old joke goes, set your watch to his haircut. He was an impressive, intimidating man.
In the 1970’s, Central Valley High School, in the small town of Shasta Lake in rural Northern California, enjoyed a run of success under McHargue, as he elevated the program to respectability for the first time in the school’s history. I didn’t play football, so I missed out on the opportunity to personally share in the success of his teams. But he wasn’t just a football coach. John McHargue also happened to be the best high school teacher I ever had. He taught in the English department, and his Advanced English elective – Cowboys & Outlaws – was one of the most popular and exclusive classes on campus, and it allowed him to indulge another of his passions – The Old West. My sophomore English class followed his Cowboys & Outlaws class, and if one was lucky enough to arrive in the classroom before the board was erased, you could marvel at his color-coded chalk depictions of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Lewis & Clark’s journey and other historic moments. As you might imagine, he was every bit as demanding in the classroom as he was on the gridiron, and equally passionate about Shakespeare as he was about football X’s and O’s. I recall an occasion when our class was reading Romeo and Juliet, each student – on cue from our spirited mentor – picking up where the previous classmate left off. If the reading I gave didn’t meet his standards, he would stop me immediately and, from memory, conclude my passage with zeal rarely seen outside the Globe Theatre. “THAT” he would bellow “is how you read Shakespeare!”
Common to most high school environments, social engagements at our school tended towards easily identifiable traits. There were the “jocks” and the “nerds” – or “theater geeks” as some called them. Since I played baseball, most of my teammates and jock friends considered me one of them, but I also had many non-jock friends who preferred to follow their bliss in band or theater groups. I freely traversed both worlds (my diplomatic skills were developed in utero) and, to this day, still enjoy the friendships from those days. John McHargue was my adult validation that there was nothing uncool about being different from others in my peer group. Simultaneous possession of a blazing fastball and theatrical skills, I was learning, were not mutually exclusive talents.
There were, I suspect, many dimensions to McHargue that were invisible to most of us. For years after I graduated from high school and moved away from my hometown, I often lamented the fact that I never took the opportunity to personally thank him for his influence in my life. I never went to college, but the seeds that led to a passion for knowledge and a lifetime of learning, were sown in his class. He made me understand the value of personal responsibility and a good work ethic.
Fourteen years later, in November of 1992, I returned home to spend Thanksgiving with family. While driving through the old neighborhood, I saw Coach McHargue out for an evening stroll with his wife Nancy. (Yes, even the students who were not football players called him “Coach”). I jumped out of my car and introduced myself and my companions. He flashed a smile. Holy shit, I had forgotten his smile! He could be charming, I now remembered. Then my words all came out in a rush. I told him: “Coach, I’ve been telling people about you for years, about how you were so passionate about words and art and the truth and how you would stop me mid-sentence to demonstrate how Shakespeare was supposed to be rendered.” I went on and on, reciting the same story you are now familiar with, and how this moment felt like a scene in a movie of my own life, and how thankful I was that I had been given a 2nd chance to express to him how much he had meant to me. Then something happened that brought me up short. Coach McHargue had stopped me in my tracks again, but not with a roar. With tears streaming down his ruddy cheeks he nodded his head humbly and said – his voice barely above a whisper, “Thank you. Thank you, young man. It was a pleasure.”
If I recall correctly, he told me he had retired recently, and he and his wife would soon be moving to Oregon to enjoy their retirement on the ski slopes. I never saw the man again, and I’m ashamed to say I have no idea where he might be now or even if he’s still with us. But he’ll always be with me. He was one of the great ones.
John McHargue. A man in full.