A Man Lived

John Aguirre A Man has died. His name is John Aguirre. He was a large man. In boxing a man is measured by the inches of his reach. John was a football player and coach. Coach Aguirre’s reach can be measured by the memories of hundreds if not thousands of friends, acquaintances and fans. I was lucky enough to be one of those people pulled into John Aguirre’s vast and compassionate orbit.

I was 11 years old in grade 6 at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Kelowna B.C. The school was directly across the sandlot from Immaculata High School.

One day I wandered through the after school games of baseball and marbles that filled the playground and ended up at the front door of Immaculata High School. I heaved the door open. There in the center of the hallway, blocking out the light from a far away window, was a huge Man. As he stepped closer, filling the frame of available light, my ears could pick up the sharp clack of cleats on the polished floor. I was transfixed. Not knowing what to do, I just stood there.

As this Man came closer to the door he offered some cautious words, ‘watch out there young fella you’re about to get run over’. He stepped by me and held the door open. As I backed away three or four football players poured out after him.  I had watched football, played football even read about football but this was football.

It seemed logical to me that this huge Man must have been Vince Lombardi or George Hallas. I knew this for sure because he had the same black glasses, the same white button up short sleeve shirt, anchored with the same thin black tie, as the pictures in my football books at home. I couldn’t comprehend the Blessed Trinity but I knew I wanted to be a football player. All I had to do was to follow this Hallas/Lombardi Man, because wherever he went, football players followed.

The following year I had the chance to prove my worth. In grade eight we had a track and field day. The ‘sprint track’ was a sidewalk that lead from the Elementary school to the High School. Coach Augiurre stood at the far end of the sidewalk and blew his whistle for the 'forty yard dash'. I poured everything that I had into that sprint, every math and science failure and every baseball and hockey success. Three yards short of the end of the sidewalk, I dove flat out onto the concrete and gravel to break some imaginary tape thus trimming seconds off my imaginary time and securing my imaginary position on Coach Aguirre’s team. I don’t think Coach even had a stopwatch with him. Getting up from the dirt, gravel, blood and dust, I heard what would become a classic Aguirre superlative “Well Gosh Son”

Two years latter, Kelowna had a minor football league. By some immense stroke of luck I was being coached by Cliff Kliewer, who would bring in Coach Aguirre every now and then to help with the front line. Both men were teammates on the Calgary Stampeders 1948 Grey Cup winning team. One rainy night practice, myself, Bill Long, a future Okanagan Sun All-star, Wes Polack and perhaps two or three other lads were given the gift of a football lifetime. With not enough players to execute a proper practice, both Coach Aguirre and Kliewer told us stories of their playing days; defeats and victories, skills and follies. I was elevated. These two exceptional men had taken time from their life to share with us boys eye-to-eye, passion-to-passion. You have to understand that when you are a sixteen-year old boy, most people labor to restrain you and your desires, yet these men fueled the fire.

Coach Kliewer, with a cigarette in hand, legs shoulder width apart, his wind breaker glistening with the light rain, showed us how to hit the hole as fast as possible or how to do a brief stutter step to throw off the middle line backer. Towering behind him was John with his clipboard tucked under his arm like a sacred parchment and a long easy smile across face. He would leap into the fray the moment Cliff’s story opened a memory or teaching and he gave it completely, his eyes glimmering in the moment.  They were like jazz musicians, improvising their teachings free form and our collective heads were spinning. I remember walking back to the car, under the steaming fluorescent lights, looking at Wes and Billy knowing something had occurred. We had been let in. We belonged.

There were other men and other teachings in those early years of Kelowna Minor Football; Sam Rodriguez and the forearm shiver, Bob Harrison’s boisterous pirate attitude, Mark Lang’s athletic grace, not to mention the kindness and patience of Tom Ehmann, Grant Bremner, Dean Haynes and others whose names escape me now. All these men had two things in common, the love of football and the tutelage of Coach Augirre.

I cannot be sentimental about John Auguirre, for sentimentality is born of thought and nostalgia. Grief is born of experience in the body and so I have grieved.  I have  considered, ‘Why the potency of my grief?’ Then it struck me. There are many types of men that you meet in a lifetime. Some take, others teach, a few attempt to diminish but men like John Auguirre have the power to Bestow. These people are so few and so far between in one's life experience, that when you have the luck to come in contact with one, you feel it in your body. They have the ballast of a lived life in every step and word; a life trending towards integrity, compassion and a sense of honorable legacy.

Perhaps that is the reason for my strong emotions for apart from my father, who threw the ball around with me and my sisters when I was 4 or 5 years old, John Aguirre was the threshold guardian who literally held the door open to a sport that has revealed to me some of the deepest mysteries and lessons in my life. Other than tending goal in hockey, there has been no other endeavor I could enter into where absolutely everything in my life would fall away. The landslide of cultural ‘shoulds’ washed away under the lights of a night game and the splendid present moment. On the football field I felt entirely competent. I belonged with a ball tucked under my arm rushing towards daylight. Not that I was physically talented, by no means, but I could pour every aspect of my being in to the game and receive boon after boon. These have arrived in shared friendships that have lasted a lifetime, learning what it takes to play your best every play and above all a few shinning moments where physical exhaustion cracked open my experience and ushered me into the spiritual landscape of the Game. The ecstatic pleasure of the full athletic experience.

Those of you who cannot suppose such an outcome, I invite you to imagine the following scenario. You are young. You are at the peak of your physical strength. Lining up some forty yards away, are a group of other young men in the same condition. A whistle blows and you charge at full speed directly into one another. It is War. It is the sacred act of sacrifice at the heart of the Navaho phrase, ‘today is a good day to die’. It may not have been for others but it was for me.

It has taken me some thirty years to develop the vocabulary to comprehend what happened every time the leaves turned brown. My blood still jumps to attention at the scent of fall, fresh cut grass and seeing my breathe in the night air. Expectant Love is the only other cadence that can match the beat of heart waiting for a football tumbling through the lights of a chilly night game, while 11 young men are thundering with great intent directly towards you. The whole pantheon of experience survives deep in the body’s secret chambers that only the senses can open.

Famed Mythologist and lecturer Joseph Campbell, himself a world class runner in the 880 yard dash from1923 to 1925, was asked, ‘How do you know when you are on the right path in your life?’  He answered, “ Once you have embarked on the adventure, there is often no way to tell if you are on the right path, when you are in the middle of it. It’s like being an open field runner in football. There are no rules. You have to run on instinct and savvy and courage, you have to trust the body to move through.” I felt that quality in John Aguirre; the unmistakable presence of a man who had an innate trust in life and that quality floated over to me in a found confidence. 

Many others can speak of John Aguirre’s wondrous and celebrated biography. I was a mere satellite passing through his expansive orbit. Yet I know about the biology of his influence. To this day when a group of young athletes gather eagerly around me, in my mind I lean up against one Man, John Aguirre and his gracious presence in the face of expectant youth. These thoughts, memories and lessons jostle in the heart and the hamstrings of a 45-year-old journeyman carpenter – myself. All because a Man lived.

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