How can the Old Coach condense 47 years of friendship with Don Boyer into a 1,200-word column? It would take at least one book and probably a couple of sequels.
Don has been my “track brother” since 1972, when I was the new track and field coach at Thomas Johnson and he was an established cross-country and track coach at Middletown. When it came to track and field, he was my guide, my guru, my source of information, my motivation. When it came to life, he was one of my heroes.
So that you have a point of reference, let me define who I consider a hero. It’s an individual who is a giver, not a taker. It’s a person who leaves the world a better place than the way he/she found it. It’s someone who is more concerned about the welfare of others than he is about himself. It’s someone who gets pleasure out of seeing other people succeed. A hero is selfless, humble and courageous. As I reflect on the life of Don, I’ll try to give you some insight into why he was such a great coach and why he is one of the most beloved individuals in Middletown and all of Frederick County.
Many of you have already read Greg Swatek’s wonderful tribute in last Sunday’s News-Post. Greg and the rest of the sports department have been covering the accomplishments of the Middletown track and cross-country programs under the direction of Don and his wife, Sharon, for decades. It would take several columns to list the invitational, league, county, region, and state titles that Don’s Knights captured. Sharon has had her share also. The number of individuals who have won titles seems endless. Together they set the bar for other county programs.
So what made Don such an outstanding coach?
Like most really successful coaches, he was a good teacher. It’s one thing to know how to perform a certain skill or technique, but you must be able to convey that to the athlete. Don was an expert at teaching every event. The strength of his Middletown teams was their depth. Yes, they had their fair share of exceptional performers, but the Knights won most big meets by scoring in almost every event. They picked up thirds, fourths and fifths in addition to their gold medalists.
Don was a master at developing average athletes into productive scorers by starting them young, teaching them the fundamentals of the events and placing them where they could have the most individual success, but just as important, where they could help the team the most. Before a meet, athletes would be given goals, where they were expected to get points, and they would be told how those points would help the team win the meet. Don then would provide the team with a pretty accurate estimate of what the final score would be.
Don had a special talent for making sure that every team member had some measure of success. Helping his runners reach goal performances, establish personal bests and understand their role on the team were among his greatest attributes. All team members knew that Coach Boyer cared about them personally. And significantly, that caring went beyond the track oval or the XC course. He cared about their academics, their deportment, their health and their futures. If you were a member of one of his teams, you were family. Don and Sharon’s home was always open as a place where team members could hang out and absorb some of the Boyers’ hospitality and perhaps some advice.
Which leads to another aspect of Don’s nature: He wanted all athletes, even those on the other teams, to do their best. At meets, he encouraged athletes from other schools and gave them pointers, particularly pole vaulters. He would fight tooth and nail for his Knights, but he respected the opposition. When I was coaching track, I always told my athletes that if Coach Boyer offered any advice, be sure to pay attention.
He learned sign language so that he could better communicate with his pole vault and high jump athletes when he coached the USA Deaf Olympics Team. He developed a bond with track and field coaches from the former Soviet Union, and he and Sharon took area athletes to Russia to compete and adult groups to tour. Several Russian groups, in turn, visited them.
Coach, your teams at TJ, Catoctin and Walkersville competed against Middletown for 30 years. How did Don Boyer become your “track brother”?
When I moved to Frederick County in the early 1970s to be an assistant football coach and head track and field coach at TJ, I was aware of the Middletown program and its success. As meet director of the prestigious Blue Ridge Relays and host for the district track championships, I called on Don for help. As the new kid on the block, I didn’t have the connections to all the people needed to put on meets of this size. I knew Don would know where to muster up the personnel to help with officiating.
We met several times during the season to organize the meets and to seed the participants. With no computer programs for seeding track and field in existence, we had to do everything by hand, using index cards, a laborious process. Working with Don, I soon learned of his passion for the sport, his knowledge of events and his philosophy of coaching. I knew by then that we would be friends. Our wives, too, soon established a friendship.
Together with two other coaches and their wives, we met socially for dinner and other recreational activities. We went camping together. We started a tradition of New Year’s celebrations with the four couples that has gone on for over 30 years. During indoor and outdoor track season, Don and I would exchange information over the phone at least once a week, recounting what workouts we had prescribed, sharing newspaper articles (no Internet, just old school information gathering) from around the state. We’d compare our athletes’ performances from the previous meets and try to trick each other into revealing our lineups for upcoming meets between our two schools. Sometimes we deked each other.
I always admired Don’s devotion to his athletes and to the sport. He never stopped learning. He was like a bulldog at track meets, which sometimes rubbed some people the wrong way, but it was because he was so driven to help his athletes succeed. Where you might not want to talk to him during a track meet, afterwards he was affable and complimentary. He loved the sport so much that he went to Greece and ran in the ancient Olympic Stadium, even though to do so was illegal. That’s passion.
He loved to compete. Whenever we were together, we would compete in some manner or other. We’d play some hellacious ping pong matches that could last hours. He biked coast-to-coast across the USA when he was in his 50s. He participated in masters races from 200 meters to 1,600 meters up until this past year. He ran a 200-meter masters race when almost totally blind a few years ago. Every time we got together, we had developed a ritual handshake where we’d both squeeze the other’s hand until one of us gave up. That was the last thing that we did Sunday two weeks ago when I visited him at the Kline Hospice House. He squeezed as hard as he could. I squeezed as hard as I could.
I gave up. He never would.