santa cruz wharf

31 July 2007

a good Man...a life well lived.

Yesterday Travis, that Thoughtful Wolf, was cool enough to send me an email, letting me know that Bill Walsh had died of leukemia at the age of 75. (check out his tribute) It was the first of many I would receive throughout the day as my friends and family learned the sad news.

Personally, I don’t hold celebrities…actors, politicians, and especially athletes to any higher standard. So…for the most part what you think about Michael Vick, Michael Rasmussen, Kobe Bryant, or my beloved Barry Bonds…really doesn’t matter to me whatsoever. Who are we to be the moral judge of exceptional athletes? They make decisions for which there are consequences. As do we all. If they break the law…let the long arm of the law deal with them. I love to watch their work…but I do not reflect on their moral code nor hold them up to be role models for me or mine.

Bill Walsh will be an exception.

Bill Walsh was a man of the highest caliber.

Not only a universally recognized genius in his chosen field, but also an insightful coach to men of amazing talent and incredible ego. Accolades and accomplishments are nationwide this morning…not just here in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was admired, respected and well deserving of the praise. His West Coast Offense was legendary. And his program to bring men of color into the coaching and front office roles will be his legacy.

Indulge me in my own personal little memory…

I met The Coach once about eight years ago at one of those NFL corporate team building seminars. Held in a posh hotel in downtown San Francisco the program focused on how to manage a “team” with a whole bevy of “stars.” The names of the conference speakers were not publicized…just promised to be members of the NFL. That could mean ANYTHING. Initially, I was an unwilling participant. Leaving the office at 6:00 in the morning, driving two hours, knowing full well we wouldn’t get back until long after dinner, and spending the day with eight of the most ego-testicle men in the world just did not appeal to me. But my boss John, President of the company, signed me up and insisted I attend. He eventually arranged for one of my female coworkers to attend to appease my contention that it wouldn’t be any fun.

We arrived in the conference room arranged with about 30 tables set for ten. There were actual place cards…assigned seating. I am usually the one to tell everyone where to sit. I’m none too happy with these arrangements. We dump our conference materials and coats at “our” table…and everyone heads for the breakfast buffet. I hang back…and am just about to start switching the place cards when John grabs my arm and steers me towards the coffee….”just leave it alone”…is all he says. Standing in line, he comments that there are only three women attending the conference. Okay…things are looking up. I fix up a cup of coffee and walk around the room checking out who else is there. Mostly high-tech, bio-med, and financial firms…an unlimited supply of testosterone.

Back at the table we realize there are ELEVEN seats at our table…one with no place card…coincidently at the spot to my right. The guys start up on how the stupid the hotel staff are…can’t even count to ten…can’t get good help anymore…when suddenly it dawns on me. I leaned across the table and told John we were one of the few companies that bought a whole table…I was willing to bet one of the speakers would sit with us. The guys doubted me…John just shrugged. John doesn’t really follow football.

Some dweeb is tapping on the podium mike…welcoming us all…so excited to have us here…whatever. I turn back to my breakfast…I have been to dozens of these corporate gigs…I don’t want to be here….I am bored already and its only 8:30. Things were about to change.

Suddenly I feel the room shift. I look up, the guys have quit eating. I turn around to the dais as most of the room stands applauding and cheering…so now I can’t see a thing. As I stand I catch a glimpse of who has caused all this commotion, Jim Plunkett, Jerry Rice, and Bill Walsh. The crowd goes wild. No kidding…it is bedlam. The cheering, shouting, clapping, and stomping goes on for easily a full five minutes. Hundreds of 40-50 year old men…decked out in GQ attire are acting like 13 year old girls at a Beatles concert. Our VP Gary has to tell John who they are. I am stunned. I just stand there. I canNOT believe it. Introductions are interrupted by more cheering and clapping. Finally, the days schedule and events are being announced and the speakers take their seats.

And…yeah…you know it…Coach Bill Walsh sits right next to me. Be still my heart.

My co-workers…these scientists, agricultural geniuses, and captains of industry were rendered MUTE. No one said a word…they all just starred down at their plates and didn’t move. I actually laughed out loud, and introduced myself to Mr. Walsh. I told him what company we represented, and that we had driven in from Watsonville. He graciously shook my hand. I think I said, “wow.” Held my hand in both of his. He said, “please…call me Bill.” I finally let go of his hand.

We turned in unison and looked around the table. Still and Silent. What a bunch of little boys. Coach and I looked back at each other... I just raised my eyebrows... he winked, he was accustomed to this. I am having the time of my life…I am now in complete control. I introduce each of my co-workers around the table and told Coach what role they played. MOST of them looked up and made eye-contact…a couple even reached over to shake his hand. John said something along the lines of, “we are pleased you are joining us” …no one else said a damn thing. Coach began eating and asked some questions. He was gracious and engaging and made each of them feel comfortable. At long last everyone was talking and laughing and enjoying the conversation. We learned Bill's father was in he felt a bond with the guys...and shared many memories from his childhood.

The program was interesting…if for no other reason than who was speaking. However…they were all three articulate, entertaining and truly a pleasure to listen to.

At our table, Bill was very attentive. The hotel staff was making sure he was taken care of…and he made sure his tablemates were given equal deference. During lunch I leaned forward and my hair started to slide over my shoulder heading for my soup.

“let me” …Bill reached over and gently moved my hair behind my shoulder. Making me blush with flattering comments about my hair, he played with it a little bit…pulling it through his fingers and letting it fall onto my back. Everyone at the table is watching and I give them a “whaaaat??” expression. But I can tell from the heat…my face is bright red.

After lunch, listening to Jim Plunkett…my back is to Coach. I realize that he is once again rearranging my hair….taking from between my body and the chair….so that it is all hanging down over the back of the chair. I don’t even turn around. I know the guys are watching Bill Walsh play with my hair. After Plunkett’s talk, there is a break for everyone to get books and photos autographed. John comes up to me and says “what’s the deal with Walsh and your hair…do I need to speak with him about it?” I look at my boss like he was a crazy man. “Don’t you DARE say a word.” Basically if he hadn’t been married…Bill Walsh could’ve played with anything of mine he wanted…anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

The crowds getting autographs were deep...and the time was almost up. Everyone was about a foot taller than I am…and not letting me through. Coach musta spotted my dilema, cause he said to Plunkett…”make sure you sign katherine’s book….and points me out. The sea of suits part and there I am in front of Jim Plunkett. (just remembering makes me quiver)

As a kid I would watch Jim Plunkett quarterback for Stanford…back when they were the Indians and had a little crush on him. I followed his career and comebacks cumulating in his MVP performance in the very first wildcard team SuperBowl win with the Raiders. What a game THAT was!!

The 50-something executive standing next to me won’t shut up. He asked if he could see the SuperBowl ring Plunkett was wearing…Jim smiled and shook his head no. The guy was obnoxious and loud in his quoting of stats and games...and just making sure everyone in the room knew he was a know-it-all-asshole. After autographing my book, I thanked him and mentioned that it really was some ring. He got a big ole grin on his face, and without breaking eye contact…took it off …AND HANDED IT TO ME. Wow. I am wearing Jim Plunkett’s superbowl ring. WOW.

This is a big ring…silver and diamonds…and the size of a doorknob. I can put two fingers thru it and its still sliding around. The jerk next to me is sputtering…whining like he’s a three year old…”how come you let her have the ring and not me…I asked first…” I stretched out my hand admiring the ring on my fingers…looking up at him with a smug smile…totally reveling in his hissy fit. Everyone around including Coach, is watching this little drama…and laughing at this poor guy…who is STILL wanting to know why I get to hold the ring and he can’t.

As I start to hand back his ring, Plunkett says “Because she is wearing high heels, and if she starts to run, I can still catch her.” I pull back my hand holding the ring close to my chest…. "really?…you think?" and I slowly take a step backward. Plunkett’s laughing…he ain’t worried….but the whiney guy grabs my shoulder like I’m really gonna make a dash for it. I glare at his hand and he lets go. Laughing, I give Plunkett back his chunk of silver and say, “well…either I’d kick off the shoes…or I’d just let you catch me.” Without a backward glance…Bill Walsh takes my arm and we return to our table.

(over the next year or so our company delivered various agricultural products to the Coach…and he sent 49-er stuff….and tickets once in a while.)

Bill Walsh was a man who led a life well lived.


Mags said...

I did not know much about him prior to today sadly, but thanks to wonderful posts like this one that are sprinkled across the internet, I now feel like I do.

Thank you for sharing this story!

Travis said...

What a fantastic memory. I'm afraid I might have been a little tongue-tied as well.

I don't think of myself as being a guy who gets star struck, but I probably would have been.

Mel said...


What a great memory.
And what an awesome experience to be gifted with.

Skittles said...

A great memory to a great man. He will most certainly be missed.

Um.. bad timing maybe, but I've given you an award over at my blog.

Nancy Lindquist-Liedel said...

You'ev educated me in the most thoughful and joyous way. Thank you.

JAM said...

This is a wonderful story. I loved it all. Especially the whiner getting his come-uppance.

The Curmudgeon said...

I enjoyed the story.

Of course, I probably would have been one of the tongue-tied middle-aged guys who'd be afraid to make eye contact.