Flawless in Transition

I’m accustomed to seeing coaches successfully communicate with Special Olympics athletes. I’ve run the Summer Games soccer venue for 12 years now, and I’ve witnessed the full array of responses from athletes, both to coaches and officials.

What I saw this past weekend, however, was one of the best pre-game speeches I’ve ever witnessed.

A 70+ year old coach sat down a group of competitors likely ranging from 25-59, and explained the tactics of the upcoming game.

He talked about who would be playing in goal, and congratulated him on his play the day before, a game that went through two overtime periods and ended in victory in a penalty-kick shootout.

He explained how one player would start the game at a position on defense, and another player would replace him (these games are 5 v 5).

“I’ll take care of all that,” he said. “I just want you to know when he is on the field, you will be on the bench.”

He talked about two brothers playing forward. This colorful pair have been around the games for years, both live and work together, and entertain yours truly on an annual basis.

“I saw some good passing, a willingness by one brother to pass to the other,” he told them. “I’d like to see the other brother consider passing it back as well.”

Knowing the dynamics of these brothers from years of spectating, I had to walk away from the water cooler where I was eavesdropping to keep from laughing out loud.

Because of a scheduling break, this team spent 20 minutes or so taking shots on goal against one of the many volunteers that attend the event. In this case, it was a girl from a Schaumburg area church that looked to be about 15 years old, proclaiming she had played soccer, but wasn’t a goalie.

She was lights out, blocking almost everything with her feet. It became funny, the thwarted efforts of these participants, failing to put one by her.

The coach had a comment about her to.

“That girl,” he said, “she was pretty good. I don’t know that their (the opponent to come) goalie will be that good.”

Players confidence restored, they were right back on track, focus where it should be.

I talked to the coach the day before, recognizing him from somewhere in my soccer past but not initially reconciling where. Soft-spoken, he had told a media representative earlier that “I’m getting more out of this than they [his athletes] are.”

You might think with his advanced age he had been coaching Special Olympics for years, but that wasn’t the case. This second victory of the weekend, again after relinquishing a late lead both in regulation and overtime, would also result in a penalty-kick victory.

A gold medal would be awarded to each of his players, and his career mark at the state games would be….2-0.

When I put it all together, it was a refreshing reality. This first-year coach, now semi-retired from his earlier profession, was a special addition to the game. The venue. The organization.

Before Jack Mackenzie handed over the head coaching reins after 43 years at Quincy University to a former player in 2012, he had won nine NAIA national championships, over 500 games and coached 31 All-Americans. He was a four-time NAIA coach of the year, including being named Coach of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association in 1974 and the Metropolitan Life Insurance’s Midwest Region Coach of the Year in 1987.

A byproduct of these successes included induction into the St. Louis Players Hall of Fame in 1997.

In 1989, he was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame.

And in 1979, he was named to the Quincy University Sports Hall of Fame.

Those honors came long before he coached the Transitions Stars & Stripes soccer team to a gold medal last weekend.

Where he was just Coach Jack.

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