Austin’s Finest

I have a rubber bracelet I wear around my right wrist. Half of it is faded black while the other half is of a pale flesh color. Six years ago it was midnight black and fire truck red. The band no longer has anything written on it as time and sun have faded all the words as well. But the bracelet is there to stay for as long as it will remain intact. After all, it’s always nice to hang on to a little memento to remind me that not all hardcore softball coaches are always what they appear on the field.

When I was coaching select summer softball, there weren’t many teams that looked forward to playing Austin’s Finest. They were a very talented and competitive girls softball organization based out of southeast Austin, Texas. All the girls were Hispanic, and were born and bred with a voracious want to win. They were skilled, quick, scrappy, and they were strong. They had very high softball IQ’s, which meant that they saw and understood all the subtle nuances of the game. They knew a batter’s hitting direction based on that batter’s stance and history. They could judge the speed of two runners on first and second, and given a live ball, they could make a split-second decision about which base to throw to in order to ensure an out or a double play. And in those situations there were always players backing up the bases in case of an overthrow (which was rare given their innate throwing accuracy). When they were on base, they were incredibly deft at stealing bases. They were all of this and more at the ages of 11-13.

They were coached by Jose Hernandez who played to win and always demanded championship production out of his girls. He was not only a crafty coach who knew every strategy in the book, but he ran a very tight ship that wasn’t too happy with sloppy play. He was what many of us would describe as textbook hardcore. Make a mistake or two out on the field and you didn’t hear about it when you came into the dugout, but rather you got an ear full right then and there.

I too coached to win and was very competitive. I favored constructive criticism with an encouraging tone. If you observed Jose and me coaching against each other—analyzing our coaching styles—you might very well conclude that, win or lose, I was the softer one; perhaps offering a more supportive environment than what the players on Austin’s Finest were experiencing. Or so I blindly thought.

If you really knew Jose, you’d soon discover his heart pounded proudly and compassionately for every single player on the team. He wasn’t so much hardcore as he was simply preparing them for high school softball and, for many, the collegiate fields where the world is very unforgiving of errors (especially repetitive errors). And so Jose would scout the tournaments and pay close attention to who he figured he could develop to play at the next level. He forged a team around a philosophy of work ethic that demanded nothing less than 100% focus. He was smart, savvy, confident, and intimidating.

Still, his coaching style rubbed me the wrong way. I figured he was on a mission to suck the air out the fun balloon, completely deflating it. One day, after watching Austin’s Finest lose a game to a fierce competitive team, I intentionally stood near his post-game huddle with the players. I wanted to hear just how out of control he could get. I wanted to witness him unleash on his team. I stood there waiting for hurricane Jose to hit, but pretty much heard nothing more than a man sincerely addressing his tired team with an understanding heart of gold. Every single girl had her eyes locked on his as he panned their faces, firmly pointing out the faults of the game, but at the same time sympathizing with the present burden of defeat. And then I saw it…the smile. The smile as warm as a campfire. He would remind the girls that it’s just a game. He knew that life has so much more in store for them than just softball. Sometimes you get to pick your battles, while other times the battles are dealt to you. Either way, Jose knew his players needed to understand to always give it their best shot. That’s all he ever asked of them.   He then extended his arm. “Hands in,” he said. Twelve girls extended their dirt-coated, sun-burned arms, resting them upon his. This was no tyrant, but, unbeknownst to me, a true leader whose criticism was constructive and spoken with an admirable, encouraging tone.

This was Jose Hernandez. This was the same man who I would later see that summer standing by his dugout, talking to a teenager whose hair and eyebrows were non-existent. A boy who had that appearance of having gone through some sort of medical treatment. A boy who was, in fact, 15 year-old Joshua Hernandez. He was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for the removal of an advanced stage of a brain tumor called a medulloblastoma. I had heard about Joshua from my son, as they were in the same class. But I had no idea of this connection, that Jose was his father.

In the fall of that year, I was attending a high school football game and saw Jose handing out red and black colored rubber bracelets that were embossed with: “Josh Hernandez. Faith is my strength.” Josh was smart, strong, and extraordinarily humble. He never wanted the spotlight; he just wanted the love and the laughs. After a hard fought battle, Josh passed away at the age of 22. Never once did those defining elements of his priceless character ever cease to exist.

It’s only natural that Josh was an incredible person—after all he was cut from the same cloth of the man I had once pegged to be insensitive. I was fooling no one but myself.

To you—Jose and Josh, I hold my glass up high with a hand that bears a six year-old, faded black and red bracelet. Literally, not a single day passes when I don’t touch the bracelet and feel its smooth worn texture. It’s not as colorful as it used to be, but that’s superficial and a meaningless fact. What matters is that it reminds me daily of how great a person Joshua Hernandez was. Like sunshine raining down from a giant blue sky, Josh soaked up all the love that fell his way. And it spilled right over into his father’s lap who knew more than anyone that life is so much more than just a game.

Copyright Ros Hill 2015




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