Years ago, when for the first time I met a faithful reader who was also a dedicated high school teacher in the Twin Cities, she shook my hand and told me she appreciated that I was “pro-coach.”

Guilty as charged. If that’s one of the first lines in my epitaph when this decades-long career is over, know that I’ll be smiling in approval, whether it’s from heaven or the beach.

For all the gutless guff they all too often receive, coaches are some of the leading underappreciated folks in our society. I put them on a pedestal with teachers, law enforcement officers, paramedics and single mothers.

Funny, because the vast majority of them already are teachers. They’ve simply made the choice to double their ridiculous hours and quadruple their absurd stress level by overseeing kids’ games for a piddling stipend. All that, while a suspicious peanut gallery of hundreds watches over their shoulder and stammers about how they could do it better.

Coaches are heroes, which is why it did my own grieving heart good to watch the tidal wave of tributes roll in for Oak Hill High School football coach Stacen Doucette this past week. Doucette rightfully received a royal send-off from the tight-knit and extended football family after his sudden death Dec. 9 at the cruelly tender age of 45.

Doucette was hailed for his uncanny, inspirational ability to lead young men and also recognized for his more important roles as husband to Danielle and father to Valerie. My goodness, sometimes we get so wrapped up in our team winning or losing or our kids starting or sitting that we compartmentalize or outright forget the latter.

Winning three state championships and building a perennial playoff contender at a place long mired in gridiron mediocrity helped, of course, but on the surface Oak Hill always seemed to appreciate what a gift from the heavens it had in the coach’s office. That is to the community’s credit, because it’s an increasingly rare response these days.

Most coaches I’ve known embrace the unrealistic expectations, grow skin thicker than an alligator’s and soldier on, knowing that they have a higher calling.

They personalize and internalize the defeats more intensely than athletes or their entourages ever will. That’s a promise. Friends and colleagues described Doucette as someone who was already tirelessly peppering them with text messages and phone calls about his plans for next year’s team, barely a month after this year’s Raiders were eliminated from the playoffs.

There is no off-season for these good folks. They will gladly postpone their own health and welfare in order to create a better environment for these adopted children of theirs to succeed, grow and prosper. They give, give, give to the games we watch and play while taking next-to-nothing from them.

It’s a pay-it-forward gesture, and an astute one. Coaches know they’re empowering the next generation to chew up and spit out adversity, learn how to embrace causes bigger than themselves, become better problem solvers, and ultimately lead a society of which we can all be proud for as long as the Good Lord gives us breath.

In that respect, coaches are on the front lines in an era that is absolutely more embattled than any other time window in my lifetime. Too often we sports apologists allow the uninitiated to deride our little club as being about simple games instead of an integral part of the educational process. And far too frequently we disparage or create unnecessary roadblocks for the inherently good men and women who supervise that learning environment.

Sometimes we ignore that these are real people with real feelings and real lives until something such as Doucette’s loss jolts us back to reality. Nor is this the first time it’s happened. I remember not many autumns ago Jim Aylward and Bill County being taken ill during the same football season.

Their programs at Mountain Valley and Lewiston had fallen off a notch from their peak, through no fault of their own as their communities underwent the changes that are so constant in a small world. I’m sure many of the same people requesting thoughts and prayers for the duo at the time were wondering out loud a week earlier why they had “forgotten” how to coach.

Why do we wait until the worst-case scenario to give these people their proper place of honor? Mike Adams shouldn’t need to have open heart surgery or Gavin Kane fight and continue to win a battle with cancer before we say, guys, you know what? We’re proud and grateful for the cultures you have built that are going to impact the communities of Auburn and Dixfield for countless generations to come. It’s not unlike saying “I love you” to your spouse. It’s fine to think you show it. Occasionally you need to verbalize it, too.

We celebrate championships, won-lost records, crazy streaks and coach of the year plaques, but the true success of these individuals can’t possibly be realized until we see what these athletes become. When these athletes who weathered what we dismiss as random yelling and screaming grow into doctors, teachers, firefighters, dads, moms and coaches themselves, then and only then will we understand what their coaches truly accomplished.

Our children’s lives are rife with greater temptations than ever. Many of them report to class or to practice from homes more fractured than we can imagine. In too many cases our fine coaches are the last line of defense and the voice of reason that could spell the difference between success and failure when the playing days are over.

Do me a favor and honor Stacen Doucette’s memory by not falling into that trap. Treat the coaches in your town, right now, the way we all treated Doucette in his vast absence this past seven days. Shake their hand. Thank them. Hug them, even. Offer to help them in whatever way you can. Ask them if they’re OK, because they probably aren’t.

Being pro-coach is being pro-athlete and pro-world. Appreciate that little corner of yours, and help your coaches continue to make it a better place.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor for the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected],com or or Twitter @oaksie72.

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