An All-Star roster reflects on memorable mentors
September 20, 2007
Before he became a beloved novelist and Academy Award-winner, John Irving was a shrimpy, academically-challenged young man at Philip Exeter Academy, a distinguished New Hampshire boarding school where, on a daily basis, Irving was reminded – painfully – of his shortcomings.Irving recounts the trials of his youth beautifully in his autobiography, “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,” and revisits them in a revealing essay in the new book “Coach,” a collection of 25 pieces culled from an all-star roster of writers.
More than anyone else, Irving writes in “Underdog,” the person responsible for giving him the self-assurance and persistence to hack it as a writer was his old Exeter wrestling coach, Ted Seagrove. It was Seagrove, Irving writes, who told him that an underdog “is in a position to take a healthy bite.” Seagrove, a former All-American grappler at Illinois, also taught the young Irving that “talent is overrated” and that “thorough dedication” can compensate for a lack of natural ability.”I was an underdog, therefore I had to control the pace of everything,” Irving writes. “This was more than I learned in English 4W, but the concept was applicable to my creative writing – and to all my schoolwork, too. If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three.”These types of life-molding anecdotes – some humorous, others saddening, all of them intimate – make “Coach” the great, moving read that it is. Learning about the men and women who made profound impacts in the lives of each writer explains as much about each coach as it does about their charges – a rare glimpse into what drives success.
That’s not to say that every coach written about in “Coach” had a positive impact on the life of the person writing about him. Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winner known best for chronicling coaches, most famously in his classic “Friday Night Lights,” writes that his football coach at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., “hated me and I hated the coach.”A man who seemed to delight in reminding Bissinger of his lack of athletic prowess, Bissinger said his old coach instilled in him a strong dislike for the “haves” who excelled on the field. So much so, that when Bissinger went to college at Penn, he wrote “nasty things about athletes in the student newspaper.””I did it because I envied them, secretly admired them, felt inadequate around them, and they were smart enough to recognize the motivation,” Bissinger writes.It’s certainly an unexpected, interesting insight as to what led Bissinger to sportswriting, and to later become one of the great sports journalists of his generation.To Bissinger’s coach’s credit, he unquestionably made a difference in a young man’s life.