The best coaches make adjustments.

Something suddenly goes wrong. Unforeseen circumstances alter the game plan and force an alternative strategy.

Sometimes, it takes a couple of tries to get it right — extra effort here, hard work there — and the coach needs to have an unrelenting attitude.

Matt Clark knows all about that.

He’s lived it.

A coach for more than 30 years, the Rangeley native has been adapting all his life, and has been unwavering in his desire to coach and teach kids along the way.

One of the biggest obstacles he’s faced nearly derailed him in 1986. He was in a car accident that left him paralyzed.

He had been coaching in Rangeley for nine years prior to his accident, and was unsure about returning to the sidelines after a lengthy hospitalization.

But he never gave up. He just made adjustments.

And he was back on the sidelines that next winter, coaching from a wheelchair.

“I’m still doing it,” said Clark, who is now an assistant with the Spruce Mountain girls’ basketball team. “Wherever I have to travel to, I’m going to coach basketball. I could have given it up easily and done nothing, but that’s not my way. I love basketball too much. I knew within myself that I can teach kids basketball whether I’m walking or not.”

When Winslow High School teacher and coach Jim Poulin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, he feared having to give up coaching. It’s a thought that still scares him all these years later.

“I wanted to continue to coach,” said Poulin, a longtime coach with the Black Raiders’ football and basketball teams. “I wanted to continue to teach. I loved what I did. I went to school each day because I loved it.”

Boothbay Region High School’s Tanner Grover uses the word “handicapable.” He has spent his life in a wheelchair but has focused on his life being defined by what he can do, not by what he can’t.

“I don’t want to be just a guy in the wheelchair that’s coaching basketball,” said Grover, the girls’ varsity basketball coach at Boothbay. “At the end of the day, I want people to judge me on my abilities to do the job the best that I can.”

All three men have made adjustments on the fly.

Coaching from a wheelchair has its challenges and limitations, and those obstacles can get in the way of those who see them and judge them based on their perceived limitations.

“I’m a coach,” Clark said. “I’m no different than anybody else out there other than I use wheels to get around and not my legs. I have to talk the game instead of demonstrate the game.”

They don’t view themselves as handicapped.

They face obstacles that other, able-bodied coaches do not, but the bottom line is they’re trying to coach just like everyone else.

But it can still be a struggle for others to see them in the same light.

“My half of the glass of water is half full,” Poulin said. “(Some people) look at me like it’s half empty, because you’ve lost some abilities.”

Overcoming obstacles

In Maine, flat tires are essentially a rite of passage. Mother Nature wreaks havoc on roads as they transition from icy winter to warm summer via a pothole-riddled muddy spring season.

But for Clark, his memorable flat tire happened in Florida, and had nothing to do with his automobile.

It was almost time for the basketball team he and head coach Gavin Kane were coaching to leave for a tourney at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, when Clark’s wheelchair blew a tire.

Running low on time, Clark and Kane embarked on a frantic shopping trip, looking for a way to reinflate the tire. Parents and other coaches took the team to the game.

Kane and Clark arrived later, just before tip-off.

What comes with life as a coach in a wheelchair is a set of logistical issues most other coaches don’t endure. When Clark first returned to coaching after his accident, there were no handicapped-accessible buses, and most places were not accessible to people in wheelchairs.

“I often scooted the stairs to get into the bus and get into the front seats,” Clark said.

He eventually used the emergency door on the bus and a seat lift that allowed him to sit in the back of the bus. In his last season at Rangeley, the school finally obtained a bus with handicapped accessibility.

Just getting into the various gymnasiums around the region was another issue. Some of the smaller schools, including Valley of Bingham or Forest Hills in Jackman, used the front row of the bleachers as benches. At the former Oak Grove Coburn School, the gymnasium was in the cellar, down a flight of stairs.

Schools like Lisbon required use of a separate entrance and an elevator to get to the gym. Even then, Clark would have to sit at the end of the bench, where the indentation in the bleachers was for wheelchairs.

“I always have to have someone available to help me in or help me onto the bench,” said Clark, who admitted he’s been dropped on occasion. “Some of the sidelines were not where I could sit in my chair. I had to sit on the bleachers. At Bingham, there’s not enough space on the floor to sit in a chair and coach.”

When Poulin’s inability to walk threatened to keep him from coaching in 2000, he was surprised to learn that the school’s booster club had purchased a golf cart on which he could roam the sidelines. With approval from the Maine Principals’ Association, it allowed him to go out onto the field to talk to players and to continue being part of the game.

“The three captains came driving it over to me. All of a sudden, it’s an answer to prayer,” Poulin said.

For road games, a parent with a snowmobile trailer offered to transport the cart for him. When that player graduated, another parent offered.

“I have been blessed,” Poulin said. “People have gone out of their way to do things for me. I’ve been so very fortunate.”

Grover rides in a van behind the bus. After back surgery, the bus ride tends to be hard on him. He also uses voice amplifier during games so his players can hear him on the court. The MPA granted Grover a waiver for its use.

“It helps project my voice during games, but it also can be seen as a detriment,” Grover said, “because during timeouts I wonder if people can hear what I’m talking about.”

There’s always a need to be prepared for logistical issues that could arise, especially if they’re arriving at a new gym.

“Every gym you go into, you wonder what it’s going to be like on the sidelines,” Grover said. “When you go into a gym for the first time, you never know what you’re going to get.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 helped to change the conditions and some of the obstacles these coaches were facing by prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities, including in employment and public access to transportation and facilities.

Many venues have become more accessible as awareness has increased, making it easier for coaches in wheelchairs.

“There’s not a school that I go into that isn’t accessible anymore,” Clark said.

“There is an awareness about it now,” Grover said. “I don’t really encounter many issues when I go to schools. Maybe once in a while. All in all, they are pretty good.”

Though most places — schools, restaurants and stores, for starters — are now accessible to wheelchairs, some still lack space for people to maneuver.

“I end up finding places we go to eat, where we can get in, but the tables are close and the room available to be able to maneuver in a wheelchair is limited. You can get into those areas but we need room.”

Attitude adjustment

With Poulin changing his means of mobility also came a change in attitude. He began coaching and teaching from a wheelchair in 2002, and almost immediately noticed a difference in how people looked at him.

“You could see it in their eyes,” Poulin said. “They’re hurting more than I am. They look at me like, ‘Poor you.’ I don’t want ‘poor you.’ They look at me very sympathetically. I don’t want to be looked at any differently than when I could walk. I’m still a human being. I still have some intelligence. Not that I had much to begin with, but from the chin up, I’m pretty good.”

The coaches’ communities have supported Clark, Grover and Poulin from the beginning. People — in Rangeley, in Boothbay and in Winslow — see their native sons beyond their handicaps.

“A lot of close friends have told me before that, ‘When we’re looking at you, we don’t even see a wheelchair, we just see you,’” Grover said. “When you go outside your community, you have those moments, but I’m known as ‘the Tan Man’ in my community.”

Clark has been active enough around Maine that people know him now.

But in the early going, things were awkward, especially when people met him for the first time. Their first impression of him at a basketball camp or clinic was swayed by his wheelchair.

“Anybody with a disability is looked at differently,” Clark said. “Until you break the ice and show that you do whatever you need to do, that opens the door and people realize that I can do this and I can do that.”

Clark’s most recent coaching stint in Rangeley ended last year. He feels that not understanding him beyond the limitations of his chair was a factor in the new administration, and in the parents wanting a change.

“They didn’t buy in that I knew what I was doing,” said Clark, who had a young team featuring three eighth-graders and three freshmen hoping to compete at the varsity level. “You could see a difference in that aspect. They didn’t know me and didn’t know anything about my coaching. They had their doubts, and I don’t think I ever overcame them because there was that stigma, ‘He’s handicapped, what does he know about the game of basketball?’”

Grover encounters an awkward moment almost every game, when he meets the captains and officials prior to the start, or when he goes through the line postgame to shake hands. He uses his right hand to control his wheelchair, often prompting players to offer their hand, only to retract it when they see his right hand is occupied.

“There are those awkward moments,” Grover said. “I can see how it might be awkward for somebody else, and it is, but for me, my confidence level is fine. Now I am in tune with that and have an awareness of it.”

Poulin even sees it within his own family. His daughters and granddaughters see him and focus on what he’s lost rather than appreciate what he can still do.

“I can see it in my daughters’ eyes when we see them,” Poulin said. “I can see it in my granddaughters’ eyes. I can see them look at me and think, ‘Everybody else is walking and you can’t.’ It’s not a burden that needs to be on anybody’s shoulders, let alone a child.”

Not always negative

For all of the times the coaches encounter people that see the chair and not the person, they also find those who are helpful and supportive. All three have witnessed great kindness, whether it is people helping Grover set up before a basketball game, or simply helping Poulin unwrap an Italian sandwich. Acts of compassion abound. It is that simple kind of understanding they look for.

“It raises your spirits,” said Poulin, who has also lost some dexterity in his right hand. “You have a challenge in your life, but people try to make life easier and life better. They’re out there with a hand to say, ‘What can I do for you?’ Sometimes they’re little things, but they’re not little things. I’d like to do for them what they do for me. It just warms my heart to be around people that just look at you in a manner of, ‘What can I do to help you?’”

It really is a matter of being able to separate their abilities from their disabilities, and do so out of kindness, not sympathy.

“We want to be looked at and treated like everybody else in the world,” Clark said.

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Matt Clark perserveres

“They believed in me enough that they wanted me to continue coaching. They didn’t want to see somebody else come in. I said, ‘I’ll see what happens and I’ll give it a shot and see if I can do this out of a chair.’ “
 

Tanner Grover gets his chance

“You never know if you can do it until you’re actually doing it. Every week, you’re getting caught off guard somewhere with something you don’t think about. You kind of work your way through those little challenges.”
 

Jim Poulin powers through MS

“There’s no promise to anybody that life is going to give you exactly what you want every single day.”


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