When my son, Caleb, was very little I wanted to give him a gift. I wanted to make sure he had his own niche when he entered high school. As a long time teacher and coach I had seen so many wasted lives where kids just drifted in and out, never having much of a purpose or passion. I wanted my son to have a reason to excel, a reason to do well in school. I wanted him to taste success and hunger for more. So I gave him wrestling.
I taught at the high school and was coaching football, when my son was in 4th grade. I had given up trying to coach both wrestling and football because I had three young kids (two girls and one boy) at home. So after letting Caleb try many different things and being a lawn chair prisoner watching endless hours of soccer, baseball, basketball and roller hockey, I finally was set free to participate in something I loved while being with my boy. I began volunteering as an assistant for the Jr. Wrestling Club that practiced at my high school. It was the start of a long and wonder filled journey.
Caleb and I grew up together, so to speak. He was learning as an athlete and I was learning and growing as a coach. We couldn’t get enough! We would go home and watch endless hours of technique videos. We would then roll around the living room floor collecting carpet burns trying various holds and moves. We never lacked for shared interests – it was always wrestling. I followed him for four years but when he was still in 8th grade I took over as the head wrestling coach at our high school (after resigning as a football coach.) I wanted to start shaping the program into my vision so when Caleb got there it would already be rolling.
Looking back now, Caleb became a lot of things for me and our team. He was my guinea pig for technique, training, and style. He was my calling card, he represented me- who I was, what I stood for. He was the poster boy for our team’s attitude. But more than anything he was my heart and soul. He carried a lot of pressure and he handled it very well. He had to carry the silent burden of “coaches son”. He had a target on his chest. He was supposed to win all the time. I felt a reciprocal pressure because when he won – I won, we won. But when he lost, I lost and we lost!
It was, as they say, “the best of times and the worst of times.” Wrestling brings an innate pressure of its own but when it is your own flesh and blood out there, half naked, under the spotlight, then it can be almost unbearable. The thrills are huge but the heartaches are equally painful. I asked some coaches in our area (Northern California) about their own experiences. What they enjoyed and found difficult while coaching their boys. Shawn Wood of Modoc said, “The wins are so much sweeter when it is your boy and the losses hurt so much more.” Eric Keating of Trinity High School said, “At some point all the medals or plaques will go to storage but the experiences that we have shared together will be cherished for a lifetime”. Rod Forseth of Enterprise High School in Redding was fortunate enough to have coached both of his boys on the same team. He said that they were his “eyes and ears at school and helped him to recruit and at times give him insight on the team’s mood”. He also said, “It was like having two extra coaches in the room”.
I personally think that the experience as a whole forced our family to be closer. It often was the tragedies that “circled the wagons” in our family. My wife and two daughters were very much a part of the whole experience – the good, the bad and the ugly. There was plenty of each for everybody. It was difficult some times when I had to switch from Coach to Dad mode with Caleb – it often was 24/7 coach, which gets into the “bad and ugly” part if it gets overdone.
When asked what they remember most, my daughters said, “When Caleb won at big tournaments it was amazing – such a personal thrill to see your own brother out there winning”. I then asked Caleb what he remembers about our journey. He said, “I loved that my biggest fan was in my corner. Wrestling is often a one man sport, but with my dad behind me it was more of a team effort”. He too sighted my tendency to lose sight of the “family” relations as father/son as it was often overtaken by coach/wrestler. But in the end he said, “We always knew we loved each other and we just had to get through the hardships before we could show it”.
Looking back I feel fortunate and blessed for having the privilege of being a coach. But especially the part where I was able to spend so many weekends traveling all over the country competing against the best alongside my son. We celebrated, we cried, we battled, we hurt, but most of all we shared life at full speed and for that I am eternally grateful. I too will cherish those memories forever.
Jerry Vallotton is the head coach of Foothill High School in Palo Cedro (Redding area) of Northern California. Caleb Vallotton wrestled at Oregon State University and is currently a professional MMA fighter.