published Friday, July 18th, 2014

Cook: Coach like a butterfly

My little girl was nervous. Like two outs, Game 7 nervous.

So she had cemented herself to the dugout bench, clutching her pink softball glove the way some people do life preservers, and was not going up to bat. No, Daddy, no.

I tried everything, all my dad-tricks -- bribery, guilt, begging -- splayed out like a useless Swiss Army knife.

Nothing.

Not moving.

Then Coach Jake walked up.

You know the old magic trick, where the woman disappears behind the curtain and reappears across the stage? One moment, my kid's like Rosa Parks on the dugout bench, then moments later -- voila! -- she's walking to the batter's box, tears drying, Coach Jake talking gently to her and holding her hand like he would a nest of bluebird eggs.

Here comes the pitch.

She swings. Hard.

She hits. Far.

Coach Jake cheers.

"Hey, sweetheart," Coach Jake told her after the game. "It was just the butterflies. I used to get them too."

Well, yes ... and no.

Coach Jake is 29-year-old Jacob Bryson, and his butterflies aren't ordinary butterflies. He used to be a Marine, and spent years in Africa and Iraq, sweeping streets for land mines and bombs.

These days he's a deputy sheriff, working in the Hamilton County Jail, surrounded daily by rogues, criminals and crooks.

He played football at Northwest Whitfield High. Fullback, I believe.

But to us, he's a softie, the guy holding his daughter Makayla's hand and always wearing a baby blue T-shirt -- "That's My Girl" -- who helped coach my girl's softball team. (Say hello, Blue Diamonds.)

Softball? Baseball? Oh, they can be war zones, too. Parents shouting like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, coaches like George Carlin. I saw one coach -- a grown man -- slam his clipboard, kick the ground, moan and groan whenever his players messed up. He became the team's own private land mine, exploding whenever a pony-tailed 6-year-old forgot to hit the cut-off or ran to third instead of first.

"You could see they were terrified of striking out," Coach Jake said. "They knew they were going to get yelled at."

It is one thing to understand this while coaching little girls, and another entirely to practice this in war-torn Iraq, or with prison inmates or while patrolling the streets.

That's the pearl of great price that Coach Jake has stumbled upon, the truth for any season. Our words, their power.

"You want to build people up in a positive way," he said. "Not break them down."

How we speak to one another -- especially our young athletes -- can either red-carpet in some higher version of themselves, or pull the pin on some interior time bomb, making them cave inward and go quiet.

"If you're not sure of yourself, you can't do it," Jake said. "That's one thing the Marine Corps taught me. Your mind is a lot stronger than your body."

Don't ask us how many games we won. I don't remember, and our girls sure don't either. I'm guessing half the time, they were thinking about Olaf and warm hugs instead of softball.

What I can tell you about is the transformation that happened with each of them. From the start of the season -- Do you want to build a snowman? Come on, let's go and play! -- to the end, when they were hitting triples and catching fly balls and 6-4-3 double plays. Well, almost.

"That really hit home," said Jake. "Seeing how far those girls had come."

They had a good coach, sweeping the softball fields of any negativity, and saying the right words that helped them break out of a cocoon of their old selves.

Like softball players.

Like butterflies.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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