About a year ago, just before the start of last basketball season, Roger Reid first felt the twinge in his groin. He was running the floor at basketball practice, as the brand new 41-year-old head coach of the Brigham Young University basketball team. He had waited a lifetime for this job, or what had seemed like a lifetime. Now it was his and he was enjoying it as only one who has waited can enjoy.
He shrugged off the pain. He'd shrugged off pain all his life, and not just the pain of being passed over for head jobs. Growing up undersized, hyperactive, and bent-on-success in Springville, Utah, he had discovered early that the only way to get noticed was, when they walked you, to run to first base anyway.He'd carried that philosophy into every other area of athletics and life, which had melded somewhere around his 10th birthday and never separated. Why walk when you can run? Why dog it when you can hustle? Why do wind sprints if you're not going to finish first and then throw up? Why sit the bench when you can play basketball for Dick Motta at Weber State and baseball as far as running out grounders can get you in the minor leagues?
And after you've done all that, why quit when you can coach others to do the same thing?
But there was the twinge, and the next day at practice, there it was again.
He went to the hospital, the one place he feared.
They told him he had something he couldn't spell. Osteoarthritis. English transla
tion: his hips were worn out.
The cartilage was gone. One day the odometer rolled over and that was it. Bone rested on bone. As painful as it sounded, it was worse than that. They told him it happened to older people normally, that he was the first new head basketball coach they'd ever seen with it. They asked him if he was active. He said about five miles a day active, 10 on Saturdays, and all those up-and-down-the-floors at practices. He asked if this meant he couldn't jog again, because jogging not only kept him sane from the insanity of recruiting, it kept his waistline from going berserk even if he did eat a lot of late night food on airplanes.
They said he couldn't jog again. They said he could barely walk again until he had two hip transplants.
The shock was train-wreck shock, as sure as a locomotive jumping the tracks. The only gospel he ever preached was hustle. He only knew two speeds, fast and faster.
He asked if he could wait till the season he'd waited for forever was over. They said he could if he didn't mind hobbling after referees and giving up tying his own shoes. They said if his assistants would put his socks on it would probably work. They said the biggest question was if he could put up with the pain, physically and mentally.
He had put in 11 years as an assistant with the Cougars, and seven years on high school sidelines before that. He had seniors who had paid their dues. He said he'd wait until the season ended, that he'd check himself into surgery the day after the Final Four. An optimist always.
Twenty-one wins, an appearance in the NCAA tournament, the WAC Coach of the Year trophy and five months later, he was true to his word. They replaced one hip the first day, the other hip three days later. Ideally, it would have been better to wait a year between the transplants. Ideally, the best blue-chippers in the country wouldn't have to be recruited, they'd just fall onto campus.
He's back at practice now, fearing the sophomore slump and worrying about Shawn Bradley's knees getting hit by other people's elbows. He's walking better every day. He'll not run anymore, but the stationary bike, once an exercise of last resort, has become a haven.
"Just working up a sweat again," he says, "that's wonderful."
He tells his players how fortunate they are. Sometimes they roll their eyes, especially the freshmen, but he persists. He tells them that when you've got it all you think you're infallible, that infirmity and crutches happen to somebody else. He tells them that when they're dog tired at the end of drills, ready to throw up but not quite, that they should enjoy the moment. And five minutes later, when their legs don't remember they were tired, to enjoy that too.
He tells his players that he's been there, and he knows, and he knows it can go as fast as it came. He tells them sports is like life and vice versa, that there will be ups and there will be downs. He tells them he's more thankful than he ever thought possible that he can walk from one side of the gym to the other. So life finally made him walk, so what? He's still in the game. He's not crying over what he's lost, he's grateful for what he has.