On a Saturday morning last September, I went across the street to the high school track for a run.
It was my birthday.
“Run” is a generous term for the act. I prefer the more accurate “periodic reminder of how out of shape I am.”
I enjoy going to the track at the high school, its rubberized surface forgiving on the knees. I’ve been periodically reminding myself for years now, long enough to recognize some of the track’s recurring characters. There’s Gray-Bearded Yellow Hoodie Guy, who runs leaning forward with just the smoothest gait … and just smokes me. There’s Power-Walking Curly Headed Lady (very intense), who, over months, seemed to be re-habbing a hip injury and now bears little trace of favoring her one side. There’s Elite High School Cross Country Star, who’s always there with her Dad. She flat out fuh-lies. I’ve literally jumped when she passes me because she comes up so fast. Last winter when the track was snow covered, I saw her running laps around the school’s parking lot, which had been plowed clear. Inspired by her example, I took a few of those laps myself instead of returning home.
I am not religious about the days and times that I visit. But when I go on Saturday mornings, there is often an older gentleman already there when I arrive. I’m awful at guessing ages, but I assumed he had a good 5-10 years on me (he shaves his head, so there are fewer clues). He takes his time doing laps, his gait slow but knowing. I figure he paces himself only because that’s just part of his workout. After he does his laps, he moves to the infield, where he does a separate regimen of squats, push-ups and stretches. His approach is disciplined, methodical. It’s all I can do to lug my keister around the loop a few times, so I steal a glance occasionally when my tank is running low. Makes me want to push a little harder.
On the Saturday morning of my birthday he was there when I arrived, doing his thing. Had just wrapped his laps and was doing push ups on the side. He finished as I was slow-lapping around the track. Even though I’d seen him numerous times, we’d never spoken. But, for some reason I couldn’t resist calling out to him. Call it birthday courage.
“Sir … excuse me…,” I called out. I never talk to anybody, so am not sure of proper track etiquette.
He paused and turned around.
“I just wanted to say … you inspire me.”
He couldn’t resist a smile as he replied, “Well, I’m 82 years old.”
Stopped me cold in my tracks.
Note: it wasn’t like it broke me out of a full sprint or anything. Rather, imagine a bumper car easing to a stop after they turn the juice off.
“Your are kidding me.” Again, I thought the guy had, like, 10 years at the MOST on me.
“Yep, had my birthday in April.”
OK, I said. Thirty years his junior and having to play mind tricks to coax my keister another half lap around the track, I had questions.
“So, what’s your secret?”
His smile was as knowing as his routine.
“Well, I’ve always just tried to take care of myself,” he began.
“I’ve worked out all my life. Was an athlete when I was younger. Try to get plenty of sleep. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink …”
“ … except for a beer on Sundays if I’m watching the Steelers.”
Understandable. The Steelers will make a person drink, I said.
He laughed, then continued….
“You watch the NFL, huh? My grandson plays for the Colts.”
“Yeah, Rodney Thomas.”
Told me he was a second year player, working his way up the depth chart. I asked him where his grandson went to college.
“Yale,” he said.
“Number 25,” he said. “Keep an eye on him.”
We exchanged names, shook hands.
I thanked him for the conversation. Told him it was my birthday and that he’d already made it memorable.
Couple months later. Another Saturday morning. Forecast called for rain. I checked my phone, which indicated that the weather was only gonna get worse as the day wore on. So I pulled on my hoodie and lugged myself over to the track. Mr. Thomas was already there, getting after it. We waved to each other as I broke into my slow jog. After a couple miles I opted to walk and stretch a bit. Whenever I do this I turn around and go the opposite direction of the one I’m running. As I passed Mr. Thomas he asked me how I was doing. I stopped so we could chat for a minute. It was raining by this point.
He couldn’t resist sharing the big news.
“My grandson’s making his first start this Sunday night … against the Steelers.”
Me: “No way.”
“Yeah, the starting cornerback is a Pro-Bowler. My grandson was fifth on the depth chart as a rookie. He made second string this year. And this week in practice, the starter had an ankle injury.
“Rodney called me this week and said, ‘Pops, make sure you tune in, I’m starting.’ I’m so proud of him.”
I’d been meaning to ask Mr. Thomas about another Thomas I remember covering years ago when I worked for the local newspaper — Travis Thomas, who I remember went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship. Any relation?
Mr. Thomas said he and Travis’ dad are first cousins. Travis got injured at Notre Dame, which slowed down his football career, but is doing well in Indiana these days. Talked to him just last month. Said Travis was just so proud of Rodney, remembering when Rodney was little and running all over the fields at the Brownson House (a venerable sports facility here in Washington, PA). How, even at that young age, he had his sights on the NFL.
“Travis said he was just so proud of how hard Rodney’s worked his whole life.”
“The key is just getting after it,” I say to the 82-year-old taking Saturday morning December laps in the rain.
Mr. Thomas smiled. “Doesn’t matter what it is. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
I wished him well. Thanked him for the conversation. Thanked him again for the inspiring example. Told him I’ll be watching.
“Keep an eye on him,” he said to me again, as he had in our first encounter.
Monday morning I scanned the box score of the game, saw a couple tackles next to Rodney’s name.
I couldn’t help but imagine how good Proud Grandfather beer must taste.
Couple weeks ago, my wife sends me a text, along with a link. “You see this?”
Rodney Thomas driving 100 miles in the middle of the night to be at the side of his good friend.
“I had a goal,” Thomas said Jan. 4, via Colts.com. “I knew where I was going, so I just got on the road and I just went. Laser-focused.”colts.com
He could’ve easily been talking about his path from the Brownson House to the NFL.
Reading his quote, I couldn’t help but picture the image of his 82-year-old Pops and his Saturday regimen.
This past Monday morning, I steal a glance at my phone looking for some beginning of the week inspiration.
Like on the track, I steal the occasional glance when my tank is running low.
Rodney Thomas working hard at his craft, and working harder to make sure it counts.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
“Keep an eye on him,” his grandfather said to me in the birthday gift of our first conversation.
I now realize he wasn’t referring to any stat line in a box score.
I’ve learned a lot over the years lugging my keister over to the track.
Primarily, I’ve learned the importance of stealing a glance around us for inspiration when our tanks are running low. Doesn’t matter what shape you’re in.
And that inspiration is everywhere and can come from anywhere.
From those faster than us … who give us something to chase.
From those slower than us … who remind us that the important thing, if not the only thing, is just getting out there and putting one foot in front of the other.
From those younger than us … who remind us that time is precious and sneaks up on you fast when you’re not paying attention.
And from those older than us … who have logged miles and miles (and miles) of experience and wisdom. And who carry stories that none of us can even begin to imagine…
… unless we take the occasional breath … muster up a little birthday courage when needed … thank them for their example … and periodically remind ourselves that we’re all just momentarily sharing the same track.