Read Companions in Courage Online

Authors: Pat LaFontaine,Ernie Valutis,Chas Griffin,Larry Weisman

Tags: #BIO001000

Companions in Courage (10 page)

BOOK: Companions in Courage
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

On those hot afternoons, he grooved the swing that he still uses today. In the evening, when he would swim back to the farm
to do the chores that waited for him, he began to dream of having a complete set of clubs and playing a full round of golf.

Eventually Esteban Toledo became the proud owner of a full set of clubs—castoffs he carried in an old bag held together with
wire. The daily swim, the work as a caddie, the solitary practice on the back edge of Mexicali, the farm work, and his family’s
grief became the heart and soul of his work ethic. At seventeen, Esteban won his first tournament with his set of orphaned

That victory brought him joy and a face-to-face confrontation with prejudice. Brown skin was not the color of choice among
the members of Mexicali Country Club. He learned quickly that when it came to representing the club, white and rich was as
important as golf skill. Mexicali refused to let him identify himself with it, a requirement to defend his first championship.
But by this time Esteban was not going to let the racial biases of the Mexicali membership deter him. Though after being denied
the opportunity to defend his title he hadn’t considered playing professional golf, a wealthy American businessman discovered
him hitting balls on the Mexicali range and became his sponsor and eventually his surrogate father. At eighteen, Esteban moved
to the United States.

Armed with less than ten English words, self-taught golf skills, and a determination honed in the challenges of his life,
he began the long journey to the PGA Tour. The Asian Tour, mini-tours in the U.S. and abroad, the Nike Tour, and numerous
Q schools from 1986 brought him to the fully exempt status that he enjoys now. Mexico has now adopted Esteban as one of its
favorite sons, easing some of the hurt from the time when he couldn’t defend a title because of his skin.

The fans on the Tour love Esteban—he has time for everyone. Recently when he was speaking to a group of Hispanic youth, Esteban
shared his secret: “I had a dream and I worked hard to make it come true. You can do that too, if you work hard and believe
in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you different. When you make it, you don’t have to change. I am still the same inside.”

Ted Nolan

rowing up in northern Ontario, Canada, shaped Ted Nolan into a man. The struggles he endured provided the foundation of a
philosophy of coaching that wins on the ice and in the lives of his players. Ted Nolan personifies courage, determination,
and compassion, qualities that make him special.

When I reflect on what it takes to become an elite coach in professional sports, I think of videotapes, manuals, seminars
on team management, hours spent behind the bench as an assistant, and time invested in understanding the psychological makeup
of the modern athlete. While these ingredients are part of Nolan’s background, they are not what set him apart as a coach.

Nolan was born into the Ojibway tribe on the Garden River Indian Reservation in Sault Sainte Marie, Canada. He is the third
youngest of Stan and Rose Nolan’s twelve children. He grew up during a time when the Canadian government believed that it
could help integrate Native North Americans into society by anglicizing them—cleansing them of their language, culture, and
tribal rituals.

This government policy exacted an awful toll from Nolan’s family. He can remember as a seven-year-old sitting with his uncles,
listening to their horrific stories of how racial intolerance and bigotry had affected them. They drank, to cope with their
grief and feelings of estrangement and worthlessness. When they died from alcohol poisoning, Ted resolved to make a difference
among his native people. To him it seemed clear that respecting people and their traditions and treating them with compassion
counted more than any official government policy.

Nolan’s parents instilled values that helped him deal with his anger and determination to make a difference. Be respectful.
Be proud of who you are. Never quit. Don’t focus on what happened. Don’t blame. Work with what you’ve got. Be happy with what
you have. Be fair. Fight for justice.

While the Nolans shared the rich traditions of the Ojibway and strong family values, they were hard pressed to put food on
the table every day. Some days all they had to eat was a little Indian fried bread. The old expression, “We didn’t have a
pot to piss in,” in some ways applied to the Nolans; except that they did have a pot that Ted and his siblings employed at
night. They used the same one during the day to carry water to make an ice rink in the backyard. It would take them half a
day to get enough water carried from the nearby pump, but they got the job done and loved to play hockey.

On that home-constructed pond, Ted Nolan learned to skate. The equipment was shabby but he made it work. Ted’s first skates
were a size six; he wore a size two shoe. Padding was the ingredient that helped everything fit. The hockey was spirited,
and eventually Ted, along with his brothers, began playing competitively in a house league.

They did well, but they could never play on the same shift because they had to share gloves. The lack of equipment didn’t
bother them but the taunting about the color of their skin did. Because Ted’s mom and dad had taught him to be fair but to
stand up for himself, he became a fierce competitor and fighter—qualities that have served him well as a coach and a person.

When Ted was fifteen, his father, Stan Nolan, a lumberman and welfare administrator, died of a heart attack. As Rose and the
Nolan kids pulled together, she continued to encourage Ted to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey. At sixteen,
Ted went to Kenora, Ontario, an eighteen-hour drive from home, to play for the Kenora Thistles in the Manitoba Junior Hockey
League. But he was torn because he didn’t want to leave his family in a financial lurch and because he got homesick. He cried
himself to sleep every night, hoping his coach would send him home.

Phil Stafford knew Ted was struggling and encouraged him in every way possible. There was no way he was going to send him
home. In spite of the difficulties, or maybe because of them, Ted excelled. A year later the Detroit Red Wings drafted him
and sent him to their minor-league affiliate in Kansas City.

He stayed one night and went back home. When he walked in the house, delighted to be back, his mother looked at him and turned
her back for several seconds. Then she turned and hugged him. It was her way of disapproving of his coming home. Ted headed
back to Kansas City the following day.

He would return home again in 1981, not to greet his mother but to bury her. Killed by a drunk driver, she lived on for Ted
as an inspiration, a source of wisdom. He would live by her credo: Be respectful. Be proud of who you are. Never quit.

Two years after his mother’s death, Nolan took the ice for the Detroit Red Wings in his first NHL game.

A back injury cut short his playing days but also sent the unsuspecting Nolan bounding toward a coaching career. He’d gone
home again, planning to attend college and get a business degree. The Sault Sainte Marie Greyhounds needed coaching help,
and Ted reluctantly agreed to assist the current coach. A month later the owner asked Ted to coach the team.

The Greyhounds suffered through a terrible season and the town wanted Ted fired. He didn’t know if he should stay or go, but
something stuck in his head—the not-uncommon fan rant that “he can’t coach.”

Can’t? Oh, Ted could hear his parents saying, “Don’t quit. Can’t won’t work.” He threw himself into becoming a coach. He contacted
the six coaches he had played for; he listened; he watched; he learned how to structure practices and how to set up a game
plan. The next year the Greyhounds won the league title and Ted Nolan’s coaching reputation blossomed.

He won the Memorial Cup as the Greyhounds’ coach, and then in 1997 the highest honor a coach can receive: NHL Coach of the

Yet his defining moment came that same year when he was caught in an unfortunate power struggle among the administrative staff
of the Buffalo Sabres. Several months after Ted Nolan knew he wouldn’t be back as the Sabres’ coach, he and I got together.
I’ll never forget his words.

“Pat,’’ he said, “hockey is what I do. It’s not who I am. Yes, I’m disappointed and I hope to be able to coach in the NHL
again. However, in another way the Buffalo experience has turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to
me. It has reminded me of what is important—family is more important than the power play. Taking my sons, Brandon and Jordan,
to school and being a part of their lives is very special. Sandra and I are celebrating twenty years of marriage. My family
continues to teach me that compassion—for myself, for my family, and for others—is the bottom line.”


The Fight
of Their Lives

Erik Fanara

ockey, while the passion of my youth and the career of my choice, is nonetheless a game. Life in the cancer ward of any children’s
hospital is not. The children’s hospital is the “rink” where I met the special people who have contributed so much to my life.
I was the spectator to their fight with a disease in order to win life. I shared in their face-off in the struggle to overcome
what at times seemed to be unfair odds. I watched the “coaches and general managers” of medicine, professional and caring
doctors and nurses, set a game plan to keep the enemy from advancing. I saw the action of the nurses’ station, moving throughout
the ward as a team using their own strategies: chemotherapy, medication, radiation, and personal love and support, to win
the battle. As a parent, I joined those who loved and cherished their children as deeply as I did my own. I ached with them
and their pain and yet I learned from their hope and courage. The challenges of the ward and the rink are similar; the lessons
are the same; but the consequences of victory or defeat are quite different.

Erik Fanara was five when he got cancer. He had been in and out of the hospital numerous times to be treated and evaluated.
He reminded me of a seasoned hockey veteran—his courage was a constant inspiration to me. He was articulate, observant, vibrant.
And, of course, he loved hockey. After I recovered from my knee surgery and started playing again, we would go over the details
of every game. While on the road, I would call him and get his feedback on the game and my performance. I looked forward to
his enthusiasm and fresh perspectives.

We first met when Elsie Dawe of the hospital staff came up with a fund-raising idea. The children designed ties, and Erik’s
carried my autograph, and we sold them to help finance a variety of programs.

Eventually, there were occasions when Erik was able to come to a Sabres practice. He became the team’s good-luck charm. All
the players knew him. As our friendship grew, my admiration for Erik’s perseverance increased as well. The love he and his
parents shared with one another was incredible to me. They didn’t focus on being victimized by the terrible disease that afflicted
their family. Erik’s parents were loving and supportive of anything that would be a positive and hopeful experience for the
one they treasured so much and felt so helpless to heal. Erik continued to be an integral part of my life.

Little did I know that my journey to give back would result in being given so much. I was so touched by his life and attitude
that when I was awarded the Masterton Trophy, I spoke to Erik over the television. I dedicated the award to him because athletes
were chosen for perseverance, courage, and dedication. I told him that he embodied all three.

Erik lost his battle to cancer on January 16, 1996. While all of us who had known Erik grieved his passing, we had all been
strengthened and inspired by his courageous battle. His funeral was a powerful experience. Erik would hug us all one more
time before his funeral was over.

January 20 was a gray, cold day. The somber weather matched our collective mood as we sat and listened to the music at the
beginning of Erik’s funeral service. After a number of people eulogized him, his mother stood and asked us to stand and hold
hands in remembrance of her son. She called him her “little angel” and said the song he liked to sing to her, and for her
to hear, was “You Are My Sunshine.” Then she started singing, and in a moment all of us joined her in tribute to Erik. As
we sang, the sun started pouring through the stained-glass window in the front of the church. Embraced by its warmth, there
was not a person who wasn’t crying, singing, and feeling that Erik was there with us. When I looked down at the tie that Erik
had designed and then looked back toward the window, the light shined through stained-glass images of rainbows, stars, clouds,
and animals. They were the same images that Erik put on the tie. The sunlit faces of Jesus and Mary gave me the sensation
that Erik had gathered all of heaven together to be with us as we said good-bye to his earthly existence.

In the game of life, there are wins and losses. This relationship of strength and courage centered on a very special tie.

Aaron Graves

t’s not how
a person lives that determines the quality of his life. It’s
he lives. Since my initial experience with death, when my junior high school friend John Brown died, I have grown in my admiration
for how creative and powerful people can be when facing death. They’ve showed me that while the human body perishes, the spirit
of the person never dies. The story of Aaron Graves is proof of our eternal nature.

Aaron was a young man who lived his life full measure, even though he was just seventeen when he died on December 22, 1999.
Stricken with a rare form of cancer, Aaron showed us in death how to live.

BOOK: Companions in Courage
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Bark Before Christmas by Laurien Berenson
Not Your Ordinary Faerie Tale by Christine Warren
Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson
Reckless by Amanda Quick
Friendly Foal by Dandi Daley Mackall
She Waits by Kate Sweeney
No Escape by Josephine Bell
Drowned Sprat and Other Stories by Stephanie Johnson