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  1. Opinion

Former Brandon High School track coach left indelible mark

BRANDON — I learned the other day that a coach who changed my life had passed away.

I searched for his obituary, and this is all I found: Jeffrey Charles DeCola, 76, of Punta Gorda, Florida, died on Aug. 16, 2016.

Sitting alone at my dining room table, staring at the 10 words and three numbers that summed up his life on my computer, I said to no one, and to everyone, "I have to write something."

Memories and feelings filled me up …

Where to begin?

Perhaps with the scene of DeCola at a track meet during my senior year at Brandon High in 1982, a short, red-faced madman with a stopwatch in each hand and another dangling around his neck as he ran and yelled: "You're two seconds behind! What are you doing?! You're killing me!"

Or maybe you could begin with a vision of him driving in his 1960s gold Cadillac he called "the Ambulance" as we ran down steaming, desolate roads, day after day. His bushy head yelling at us out the window at mile 10: "Let's go! Let's go!"

Or perhaps you could start with a picture of him from 1975, surrounded by young men in Brandon's maroon and white hoisting a state title trophy, making DeCola one of only five coaches from Hillsborough County in the past 50 years to win a state team track title.

Then again, maybe a quote from former legendary Leto coach and current Steinbrenner assistant Bobby Ennis would do the trick.

"Jeff DeCola was simply the best track coach I've ever been around," Ennis said. "I loved coaching against him because that made me better. When it came to coaching, he made everybody around him better. I loved having him in my life."

Suddenly, I thought of my former teammate and lifelong friend, Paul Jackson, who ran for DeCola for years but was never fast enough to score a point for the team in a cross country meet.

One day after a brutal practice, Jackson said he realized that no matter how hard he tried — to the point of feeling like his heart might explode — that he was never going to be anywhere near the front of the pack.

Disheartened, he decided to quit.

The next day, Jackson didn't show up for practice. His phone rang that night.

Coach DeCola's distinct, sing-song voice came through the line.

"Paul, why weren't you at practice today?" he asked.

"I just don't think this is for me," Paul said.

"What are you talking about?"

"I don't think I'm very good at it."

"I expect to see you at practice tomorrow."

"Okay."

Paul Jackson never missed a practice after that, even though he never scored a point in a meet.

And therein lies the beauty.

Looking back, Jackson said of all the things he has done in his life — and that includes getting an architecture degree from the University of Florida and a master's in architecture from Yale, and becoming a huge success with his business — nothing had a more positive impact on him than running for Jeff DeCola.

"If I hadn't run for DeCola I never would have done as well at any of those things that followed," Jackson said. "Because nothing was ever as hard as running for DeCola. I knew that if you could run for Coach DeCola you could get through anything."

Jackson asked what happened to Coach at the end, and I told him that I had heard that he had suffered from one of the dreaded memory-loss diseases that steadily broke him down.

We said how ironic from a life filled so full …

Indeed, where to begin?

For me, it might be at the starting line of any race, lined up with my teammates, with whom I had run hundreds upon hundreds of gut-wrenching miles, looking over to the side at Coach DeCola, his face determined, his thumb ready to punch his stopwatch, proud of his boys.

He would nod at us but he would not say a word. He wouldn't have to. His words were in our heads: "We may not be the most talented. We may not be the best. But when we step to that line, we will know that no one will have outworked us. No one will be as tough as us."

We knew it was true, and what a feeling it was.

What we didn't know was that it was a gift that we would carry within us for the rest of our lives.

Rest in peace, Coach DeCola.

And thank you.

Contact Scott Purks at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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