By Douglas B. Moreland
We met when I was 13, a freshman at Iroquois Central High, trying out for the cross country team. We connected immediately; he was easygoing, fun and funny, loved life, and loved coaching. He had a care-free attitude, was humorously self-deprecating and loving. We worked very hard, but it never felt like that.
My cross country coach, Bill Sweet, had manifold imperfections. My mom (and many adults) found him, loud-mouth, obnoxious, desultory, licentious and immature. All qualities teenage boys revered.
Our meeting was felicitous. I was from a broken home, and unaware I was reaching out for guidance. My father was absent. Dad was an accomplished physician and violinist, and also an alcoholic and a drug addict. Years later he would lose his medical license and became a convicted felon.
My sophomore year was transformative. While I matured as a runner, I did not grow emotionally. I got into big trouble and was to be suspended from school. My coach came to bat for me and asked the administration to let him intervene. I was expecting a thrashing. Instead, I received the best lesson I have ever learned.
My coach sat me down and proceeded to tell me all the (worse) things he had done at my age. He put the whole dishonor in perspective, without raising his voice, or shaming me. And then … he forgave me.
At that moment, I learned responsibility and accountability. How my actions can affect others. Most importantly, I realized that an adult man cares, and more than anything else, I did not want to disappoint him again. What I didn’t realize until years later, this nascent relationship was based on trust, faith, honesty, loyalty and unconditional love: the most powerful forces in the world.
By my senior year, I was among the best distance runners in the nation, and we had become inseparable. He was not only my coach, but also father and adviser, and had the wisdom to refuse many athletic scholarships on my behalf. His advice: Go for the best education. This was at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school (they offer no athletic scholarship). Four years later, he also advised me to take a shot at medical school. I didn’t give it a second thought.
Our friendship has endured decades of life’s slings and arrows. He remained a constant. When he retired from teaching 17 years ago, I committed to have lunch with him every Tuesday. And barring medical emergencies or travel, that’s what we did. In the last few months, his declining health has caused some hiccups in our schedule, and now twilight approaches.
I’m writing this encomium for Coach Sweet, my longtime friend and mentor. In a larger sense, I write this for any father, or father figure. You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect father. The traits that he evinced have everything to do with character, and are qualities we can all achieve.
On my personal resumé, my relationship with Bill Sweet is at the top. I consider his influence on my development as critical to my happiness and success. Titles, degrees and material wealth are without value. He imbued in me the ability to give and receive love, faith, self-confidence and loyalty. At that moment, now 46 years ago, when he forgave me I told myself I would never let this man down again. I hope I kept my word.
Dr. Douglas B. Moreland is an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.