Eastern Wake: Opinion

Column: Teacher, coach, father figure

By Johnny Whitfield

Johnny Whitfield
Johnny Whitfield ehyman@newsobserver.com

You’re mighty lucky in this world to have one man come along and be a positive influence in your life to the degree that the lessons you learn from him stick with you for years to come.

It’s almost like asking for too much ice cream in your bowl if you’re lucky enough to have two such men be part of your life.

I’ve had too much ice cream in my bowl from the time I was about 8 years old.

My father, of course, has been a steady presence in my life. But I got seconds when I signed up to play football for the Wendell Mighty Mites in 1974 and crossed paths with Jerry Newbauer. He passed away Monday at the age of 76 and I am heartbroken.

Though I didn’t know it at the time I signed up to play football, he was a recent transplant to the Wendell area from Wisconsin. He had moved here before it was the trendy thing to do when his company, Square D, transferred him to their new plant here.

As a football coach, he worked with the players who played on the offensive and defensive lines, which included me. He didn’t have much to work with, I’m afraid. I was, maybe, 60 lbs. soaking wet and I couldn’t run fast enough to catch a cold, so they made me a lineman and forced Mr. Newbauer to coach me up.

I was a willing student and, over time, I got bigger and smarter about the game. Mr. Newbauer taught us about doing the little things that made a difference in each play and each game that could translate into wins.

That consistency and attention to detail paid off the last year I was eligible to play in the Wendell program. We went undefeated that year and it remains, to this day, the crowning achievement in my sports career. More importantly, I think that drive for consistency has stayed with me beyond football in both my personal and professional life.

When we won the last game of that season on a little field in the Wilder’s Grove community off New Hope Church Road, Mr. Newbauer was amped up and as excited as I had ever seen him. I felt like we had made him proud.

But some of the off-the-field things Mr. Newbauer did are just as important to me. When I went to sign up for my last season, I stood in line as my dad and Mr. Newbauer talked. Mr. Newbauer looked at me and told my Dad, “He’s ready to go, isn’t he?” That was the understatement of the year, but it told me Mr. Newbauer knew how excited I was to play ball.

After I aged out of the program, Mr. Newbauer didn’t disappear from the scene. At some point in middle or high school, I found myself writing a school report on labor unions. I knew that Square D was not unionized, so I called Mr. Newbauer and asked to interview him for my paper. When I asked him why Square D wasn’t unionized, his answer was so simple.

He said his company believed management and the workers could resolve any problems they might have by just sitting down and talking them out and that’s the way they preferred to do it. That’s an attitude many of us should try to emulate in our personal lives.

Mr. Newbauer didn’t influence just me. Dozens and dozens of young boys came through that program during the years he coached and learned how to play the game. And they learned, whether they knew it or not, that there is so much more to being a good person than just being a good football player.

A couple seasons ago, I ran into Mr. Newbauer at an East Wake football game. I introduced him to my wife. I was so proud for him to meet her. And for her to meet him.

He kept my ice cream bowl running over for four decades.