Fighting fish such as the unseen tarpon in the photograph above is fun. In the whole scheme of life, however, I fully understand that fishing is recreation and a passion for only a handful of people.
For the last sixteen years, I have been blessed to know Coach Stephen Gussler whose passions are far broader and more important than fishing. His unquenchable fire for coaching young men the game of baseball is unsurpassed. His grasp of how to embrace the moments of each day and his dogged determination to be the best person he can be even when besieged by illness has inspired not only his players and the kids he teaches at Thomas Worthington High school but all the rest of us who have been given the opportunity by his example to learn how critical it is to cherish every day and live it to the fullest dimension our health allows.
For me, an angler and baseball coach, there are undeniable parallels between the experience of fighting a great fish with the fabulous guides of the Florida Keys and my personal experiences with Coach Gussler both before and after he began his fight with colon cancer.
For a fisherman, a fabulous fish fight begins with the hunt for a fish to which the angler can cast. When fishing the flats of the Florida Keys for bonefish, permit, or tarpon, I slowly scan back and forth across the water ahead and to the side of the skiff. I thrust my vision through the surface to the sand, turtle grass or coral bottom looking for signs of fish. Perhaps the water surface appears nervous, moving in the wrong direction. Sometimes a puff of sand known as a mud streams down current indicating that a fish is feeding somewhere ahead of the milky colored water. Occasionally, a moving shadow or the sun glinting off the tail of the fish probing the bottom for food in very skinny water provides a clue to the presence of the quarry. The hunt is a time of observation with no direct connection.
Similarly, I observed Coach Gussler with no direct connection before I met him. While coaching as an assistant for Worthington Post 123 Legion baseball team, I observed this young, handsome, smiling, passionate baseball man while he stood in the third-base coaching box managing the Southway Legion team. As I observed his coaching style, Coach gave signs which made it clear to me that this was a man with worth knowing. His spirited yet friendly style demonstrated his passion for the game of baseball and enthusiasm for young people.
I chuckled to myself as I observed the lanyard of the stopwatch sticking out of his back pocket indicating an attention to detail which in this case was his attempt to determine the precise time it took for a catcher to receive the baseball from the pitcher and release it while throwing to second attempting to nail a stealing base runner.
When I performed the eye test on his players, it seemed that the performance of his team outstripped the athleticism of his kids. These and many other signs made it clear that a connection with this fine young coach would be worthwhile.
When fishing the flats, once a worthy fish is observed, it is time to cast a bait or fly in front of the fish so connection can be made. One learns quickly that being timid or hesitant does not produce results. Because we fish in very shallow water, there is an irresistible temptation to baby the shrimp or fly as you cast so as not to spook the fish. If I had a dollar for every time Guide Steve Huff shouted “don’t baby it, chunk it in there”, I would not need to head to work on Monday. Do not hesitate, get the bait in front of the fish is the rule.
As my son, Pete, was beginning his senior year at Thomas Worthington, I knew the athletic director was looking for a new baseball coach. I did not hesitate! I picked up the phone and fired a verbal cast at then athletic director, Rich Seils. I asked Rich if he had a resume from a young coach named Stephen Gussler. I could hear him rustling papers on his desk. He replied that he did. “Have you interviewed him?” I asked. “No”, was the reply. “Well, I know he’s young, but I have seen him coach. You should interview him.” Apparently, the interview went well because Rich Seils bit and Coach Gussler was the new TWHS baseball coach.
One of the keys to fishing the flats of the Florida Keys is patience. As I often say to my law partner, Michael, as he bemoans the effort it takes to catch walleye on Lake Erie, “Even I do not eat 24 hours a day.” Patience is rewarded when fishing the flats. If you put a shrimp,crab or good-looking fly in front of a feeding fish you will be rewarded with a bite. But you must be patient. Not every encountered fish is hungry.
Coach Gussler’s first team wasn’t very good. He was frequently called upon to demonstrate patience throughout that first year and often since. His patience was memorably demonstrated to our family in a most startling way in the second game of a doubleheader at Marion Harding High School. On a brisk but clear spring Saturday afternoon, the mighty Cardinals managed to lose two ball games. Both by the score of 13 to 12. Pitching and defense were in short supply.
Our son, Pete, was playing left field as a Marion Harding batter lofted a lazy fly ball in his direction. As he settled under the ball, Pete raised his glove in perfect position to make the catch. Just as the ball arrived, Pete stepped in a shallow depression in the outfield grass. His body went down, his glove went down, and the ball hit him square on the top of his large head giving off a resounding thud that sounded as if an observant shopper was thumping a watermelon in the grocery before deciding to buy it for a family picnic.
Pete shouted a familiar profanity which was no doubt heard in Worthington some 40 miles away. Patience? Oh yes. The rookie Coach Gussler did not cause any bodily harm to his startled and embarrassed leftfielder as the parents and players from both teams laughed.
Throughout my 23 years of fishing flats of the Florida Keys, I gradually through observation and trial and error became a little better at my craft. The title of my blog “Front Yard Fishing” is taken from one of the steps which I took to become a better angler. I practiced my casting on dry land in my front yard.
Similarly, Coach Gussler’s teams gradually became better. Through his relentless efforts to teach, encourage, and support his athletes, his teams went from a collection of players who did not want to be in the field to make the last defensive play, or at the plate to knock in the big run, or on the mound to get the last out to teams that expect to win ball games with players who want to be on the field with the game on the line.
Coach Gussler has demonstrated the uncanny ability of creating an atmosphere in which a young baseball player can begin his freshman year as a project and complete his senior year as an accomplished baseball player with the character and ability to contribute to a memorable and rewarding team experience.
Just as my experiences in the Florida Keys have been made remarkable by the quality of the guides who helped make fishing memories for me and my buddies, Coach Gussler has surrounded himself with people who love baseball and care about one another. He has developed a remarkable coaching staff comprised primarily of young people who have played for him. They love the program, they love him.
Just as a fishing guide in the Keys must permit his angler to catch the fish while providing quality instruction and support, Coach Gussler has developed the willingness and ability to delegate responsibility and allow those who coach with him to take responsibility for various areas of the program. I know there are times when Stephen would coach or instruct a skill in a different fashion than his assistant. However, he has the wisdom to allow the assistant do it his way without interference knowing the team will be better off if he trusts his assistants to deliver the message.
All anglers who have had the privilege of fighting a hooked bonefish, permit, or tarpon should appreciate the experience as a connection to a wild creature of nature willing to do anything to live another day.
Coach Gussler has that same irrepressible determination to live. His fight against cancer has been waged during a time when his teams have had their most on field success. Two league championships in a row. Two district championships in a row. State Coach of the year in 2013. Winning has been fun. But learning from Coach Gussler about living, loving, and passion has been more rewarding than championships.
Remarkably, the most fun I had in my many years of coaching at both the youth and high school level came after our regional semifinal defeat last year. We lost to Hilliard Darby 15 to 13. It was a terrible baseball game. We made six errors. We could not get anybody out. The game lasted a draining three plus hours. Dreams of going to the state tournament were unfulfilled.
The ride home on the dreaded hard seated yellow school bus although short in distance seemed like it would never end. The silence on the bus was thick with disappointment. Once the bus parked in front of the well-worn batting cages adjacent to the ball diamond, Coach Gussler and his assistants hugged and thanked the players as they trudged down the steps of the bus and headed off for the last time in 2013.
Coach Gussler was not well that day. He was in pain and clearly exhausted. Regardless, he sat down on an island of grass in the parking lot as the rest of us gathered around him. Within minutes, the defeated varsity coaches were revisiting how terrible the team played despite how “great’ we were as coaches. Smiles emerged.
And then we began to talk of the future. Coach Gussler spoke of the starting lineup for next year’s team. He demonstrated for those of us who assisted him a most important human quality, the ability to hope. Coach put down his physical pain and the anguish of a lost opportunity for his team and cast his gaze to the future with optimism and excited anticipation. We joined him with the joy of a future worth contemplating in our minds.
In two weeks, that future becomes the present. Practice begins, games will be played, and Coach Gussler will be our leader.