LEWISTON — Mike McGraw took over as head coach of the Lewiston High School varsity boys’ soccer program in 1982. He had been an assistant to Paul Nadeau, the team’s coach since its inception.
As 10 seasons turned to 20, and then 30, McGraw reflected each year, wondering how many more he would coach. Through the winter, he’d think about preseason tournaments and returning players. By February, he was fully committed to the next season.
The recent evolution of the Lewiston boys’ program has given McGraw’s career new life.
“I think it’s added more years in my coaching career,” McGraw said. “It’s been rewarding. After all these years of coaching, I’m finally having a little more success. It’s a lot more fun to go out there. I can use the skills that I have to help the kids use the skills that they have to find success.”
McGraw has seen his team, its skills and its style of play progress in the past decade.
It’s been a challenge, he said. But when you get down to it, he’s still coaching the same way. He’s trying to develop kids and their skills while helping them be successful. The unpredictability of coaching kids — African or American — still exists. It makes no difference.
“I didn’t change that much,” McGraw said. “I changed how I prepared for games and how I prepared for practice. I had to prepare more diligently. I had to ramp up a little of the exercises we had to do.”
The greater attention to detail, and the increase in personal responsibility, has energized him as a coach. He studied the game and tried to bring new knowledge to the game.
“I had to show a little more of my coaching knowledge to them,” McGraw said. “They’re knowledgeable, but they don’t know everything. I had to take what they knew and build it.”
The skills the African players bring to the team allow him to use different formations and give him more options to coach with.
It hasn’t all been easy. There have been challenges. He had to build trust between different cultures, personalities and backgrounds. All coaches have to do the same to some degree, but this was a sizable bridge to build.
“You can have all the talent,” McGraw said. “You can have the best team, but the best team skill-wise doesn’t always win. It’s the team that has the chemistry and that works together. It’s the trust part. It wasn’t necessarily tactical-wise. It was getting them to play together.”
McGraw also sees in his role a responsibility to demonstrate how students from different cultures can blend together on one team. He’s tried to learn and understand the culture and background of his African players. He has to show respect to those differences and set the example for the rest of his team.
Recognizing Ramadan has become essential. Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan — the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar — as a month of fasting. Throughout the month, no food is eaten during daylight hours. Trying to honor that while playing a sport made it difficult.
“We’d start the game at 6 p.m. and the sun is going down,” McGraw said. “Halftime is about 6:45 and the sun is . . . down. There was no way I could talk to any of my players because the food was coming out to them and my guys were eating. I had to wait until they were done. And it wasn’t just the Somalis, the white kids were eating too.”
Proof again, to McGraw and to the team, that his message of unity was reaching its intended audience.
For how long he will continue to deliver that message is one question to which he doesn’t yet have an answer.