I got my ball-and-chain this week: a manila envelope with "Coach Dan DeWitt'' scrawled on the outside and, inside, pink carbons covered with more scrawling — birth dates, phone numbers, pediatricians' contact information — for, among others, a Joshua, a Brett, a Tyler and an Alexy.
The best and most hopeful season in Florida, the fall, will pass with less time for drinking beer on the porch with my wife, or for watching football, or for those hundreds of home-maintenance projects I should get to.
I've been sentenced to four months of scurrying from work to practice, of evening scheduling calls, of desperate Internet searches to figure out how to counter a full-court press or execute a drop step.
Everything is easy when you know what you're doing, my father used to say. From my years as a youth coach, I can tell you the reverse is even more true: It's all difficult when you don't.
I'd like to be able to announce here that all the time and anxiety has been worth it. And it would be if I was sure I'd really done these kids any good.
Even though I'd never played organized soccer — or flag football or basketball, the other sports I've coached — I started volunteering because I thought it was "my turn,'' that I was passing that brief window when your children play youth sports and you have a chance to "be involved'' and have a "positive influence.''
I always doubted that such good intentions are enough and doubted it more after recently interviewing retired Hernando High coach Ernie Chatman and his former athletes.
How can sports justify the outsized emphasis we place on them?
For the tired-but-true reasons that learning skills and practicing them until you get them right teaches kids that honest effort pays off. And that only sinks in, and carries over later in life, if you get that payoff, if you win, or at least feel that you've gotten really good — or so said the deputies, teachers and even former pro athletes that Chatman coached.
"I was never the kind of coach who just rolled the balls out and said, 'Have fun,' " Chatman said.
He also said, when I asked why Hernando County no longer produces many top-flight baseball players, that there are probably as many good youth coaches as ever. But there are more kids, and probably out of necessity more ball-rolling-out, just-want-to-help mentors. In other words, the quality of local coaching has been diluted by people like me.
If that's the case, I thought, I probably shouldn't volunteer. And I agreed to this year only when the secretary of Hernando Youth League basketball told me that my son's previous coach had bowed out.
But that's not why my sense of obligation is heavier this year. It's because I realize more than ever that I need to be able to teach the game and, to do that, learn it. And, though I don't want to put too much pressure on kids to win, I do want them to improve — to be as good as their talent and the limited time we have together allow.
The parents and players have always seemed to appreciate what I tried to offer — fairness and a chance to have fun — and always greet me warmly if I see them around town. That's a great reward, of course. But I'd also like to be able to claim a cop, a teacher or even a pro.
So get to work, Brett.