He Was More Than a Coach
“Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen.
The ones who win get inside their player and motivate.”
—- Vince Lombardi
I’ve always spoke very highly of all the coaches I played for now 20+ years ago. I’ve always had that strong connection to them regardless of how much time has gone by. Now if you want to know how I get motivated, let me know that “I have a ballgame to play and my team needs me.” My life as a ballplayer took on some of the most raw feelings I’ve ever experienced. Being an athlete was about more than just a game, it was about the entire journey of learning fundamentals and evolving into an individualized athlete with a heart of a champion. Here’s the story of a man that knew exactly what to do to help me step my game up as an athlete. But what he didn’t know he was creating for me was a way to survive.
Nicholas “Nick” Kolinsky was a ex-football player who had a heart as big as his frame. He is still and will always be a legend from the South MS area. He was originally from Pennsylvania but moved to MS many years ago to play for the 1962 championship football team from the University of Southern Mississippi. He stayed around that same area met the love of his life and raised one beautiful family. His youngest daughter, Nikki, and I would be teammates for several years.
This man was surely a legend in the city but for me the term “legend” would take on a whole other meaning. I would meet coach Nick sometime in the early 1980’s. I had play some form of “coach pitch” softball for a year but this was “real” softball, as I saw it, because we had tryouts. I was an okay player but nothing was serious and I was having fun. We had the tryouts complete with coaches from the league and their notebooks looking on and taking notes. A couple of days later my parents and I got the call that I would play for Nick’s Ice House and my coach would be Nick Kolinsky.
This big and loud man would laugh and smile in a way that you just instantly know that he was different than most people you meet. His happiness and love for life, his family and now this young softball team was infectious. You never had to ask me if I wanted to go to practice. I would sometimes walk back to the vehicle with my heart crying tears because I didn’t want practice to end. I ate, slept, breathed and fully saturated myself with his coaching as much as I could.
He pushed me but in a way that I wanted to play at my best. He always told us as players, “You will perform in a game the way that you practice. Winners never ever give up. Every play and every ball you catch or hit effects everyone on your team and they are your family. You leave it all on this field. If at the end of the game you have played the best you could and you left it all on the field no matter what the score you will always be a champion in my book.” He knew how to motivate me. I instantly took some of these lessons with into now a 42 year-old womanhood.
Every athlete has a difficult night where things just don’t seem to work. You misjudge balls. Your hit timing is just off and you begin to worry if you even have any eye/hand coordination left. It was these times when coach would say to me, “Dana, that was a $100 catch and a .10 throw!” It wasn’t earth shattering to be “off” for those games but disappointing it was. He could somehow tell when I needed that “compassionate coach” side and he always encouraged me. He would bring his big “man size” body down to my child size self and look me in the eyes with compassion and said, “Keep going baby. These kind of nights don’t last but you have to keep pushing through them. Don’t you give up! Do you hear me?!!! You leave it out here on this field no matter how much you have to give. Your team needs you. If you get scared and don’t know what to do on those bases KEEP YOUR EYES ON ME. I’m right here and we will do this together.”
Now to most people this interaction might not have been that big of a deal. To that developing child and athlete, that was all I needed to hear. He didn’t say that he would be there to do it for me. He said, “I’m right here and we will do this together.” From that day forward, I played with confidence and have faced every obstacle knowing that he would always be right there. He had no idea what those positive interactions would do for me as an adult. Every single time I had to pick myself up from one of life’s unfriendly occurrences, I always heard my coach saying, “Charlie get up! Your team is depending on you. The game is not over yet. Get back over here!”
Charlie was a name that Coach Nick gave to me because of the way that I played. He always told me, “You play a lot like Pete Rose. You have some of the best hustle I’ve ever seen. From now on you will be called Charlie Hustle.” As long as there was daylight and the “want”, “need” and “will” to continue was there he would stay after practice and hit me additional balls to help me sharpen my skills. Our team seemed almost untouchable. It wasn’t just me who would benefit from his coaching. We practiced and practiced hard every single practice. Lolly gagging was not allowed by him, other coaches or the other players on the team.
After ballgames it was nothing for him to load up the entire team in the back of his pickup truck while we cheered going riding through the city like we were national champions. And to me we were. I’m glad that he gave me a foundation of self discipline. It might be in only a couple areas of my life but it took and I’ve never let go of many of his life lessons. We were told very seriously, “that being a winner is not given. You have to put the work in and even then you might not win the game or the battle. It’s the same with life. You give everything you have all the time until there’s nothing left to give. That is a champion!” He gave all us players a t-shirt that had his business logo on the left chest. But on the back it said “I’M ONE OF NICK’S BOYS” He told us as a team that those shirts you have to earn to be able to wear them. Until I graduated high school, I was known by my nickname Charlie Hustle and I wore that shirt with pride. I always wore that shirt under my uniform shirts throughout my high school career as a kind of balance and piece of my coach right there with me like he had promised.
Because of the impact of his compassion in my days of being a child and developing athlete, I have survived many different situations. I worked hard to live through a lot of things. I reconnected with him after this many years. I was contacted by one of his daughters via Facebook to tell me that his health was declining. On one of our trips back to Petal where he and his family lived the whole time I knew them. I walked into the house where he was sitting and his eyes lit up. “Dana!!!” He chuckled. My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him and said, “Coach I’ve missed you. Here’s my family.” I don’t know if the tears fell like they’re doing now as I write this. But shortly after Marshall pooped on his lap he wanted to talk about old games from when I played ball for him. It was like one of the most beautiful times as a child had been resurrected by the gentle giant that had become a gentle old man. I called him several times since that visit and each time we spoke he had a even more difficult time speaking due to a failing heart.
My beloved coach passed away July 5, 2016. The grief is so great that it’s taken until now to be able to write about such a great man. The towns of Petal/Hattiesburg knew when this man passed away. For me it was like a new national day of mourning. The pain of the little child inside had me disappearing inside myself. My athlete has never stopped mourning over his loss. Anytime you ask me about this guy I called Coach Nick I tear up but not out of sadness. I tear up over the gift I was chosen to receive. That was just gratitude rolling out of my eyes. Since trauma has had such a big impact on my life more than once I always wear that shirt into a session with my therapist when I need his encouragement.
Ironically, as the universe would see fit, I met the one who would be the next big coach in my life only a month later. This time things are different. Now I’m not in the fight for a win in a game, I’m in the fight for my life. And everyone doesn’t receive a participation trophy. Grateful again? You bet I am. I will find a way to succeed because I’M ONE OF NICK’S BOYS!
Below are links and newspaper about this guy everyone knows as The Man, The Myth, The Legend. Please take a little time to read about this man that both South Mississippi and I loved.