Softball: A Love Story
It was a sunny Friday afternoon in late May, and I had just returned to my mother’s house after completing my first job interview. The day could not have gone any better – I had aced the interview and was offered a choice to be the new head basketball coach for either the boys or girls program at Gothenburg High School.
I didn’t accept right away – instead, as my college advisor had suggested, I ask the school to give me until Monday to decide. It had been difficult to not just accept a job on the spot. After all, I wanted to be a basketball coach – specifically a boys basketball coach.
There had always been a desire to do more with basketball. Growing up poor in rural Arkansas, my first basketball was my best friend. Spending nearly every day with it, I wore out the grass in a perfect circle beneath the old oak tree in our backyard where my grandpa had tacked up a makeshift backboard and rusty rim. Throughout my youth, I shot baskets and played imaginary games in my mind until the sun would tire and chase me inside.
All that time spent around the old oak helped develop me into a pretty good player. From a little squirt all the way to my junior year of high school, I had excelled on the basketball court. Then a torn ACL in my left knee changed the direction of my life.
No longer a top basketball recruit, I became more fascinated with baseball. After a strong senior campaign, I turned down a scholarship offer to play baseball - thinking naively instead that I could play pro baseball - then going undrafted and bouncing around from one pro tryout to the next. At times, that seemed promising, until one day it didn’t. So, eventually I ended up working on my grandpa’s farm in rural Arkansas – a little lost and searching for what to do next.
My grandpa encouraged me to attend college – but nobody in my family had ever gained a college degree and I was lost as to where to start. Eventually, with the help of friends, I figured it out and somewhere along the way, I had decided to be a teacher and basketball coach. When Gothenburg High School had offered me that chance, I could hardly wait until Monday morning to accept.
The day before I had planned to call and become the new boys basketball coach at Gothenburg High School, the phone attached to a wall in my mother's kitchen rattled against the paneling. When I answered, a familiar voice greeted me with a rhetorical question, “Are you really going to be the basketball coach at Gothenburg?”
It was the athletic director from the high school from which I had graduated. He explained they had a teaching position I was right for and possibly a coaching opportunity that might appeal to me. I explained to him that I had already made up my mind and while thankful for his consideration, I would have to pass. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Out of nothing more than past loyalty, I drove the 50 miles that Sunday afternoon to interview with Cozad High School for a job I had no interest or intentions to take. In fact, I didn’t wear a suit jacket or a tie – but instead, shorts and a t-shirt. (Hey, it was nice a tee)
When I arrived, the athletic director and principal happily greeted me before we settled around a small round table in the office. The two took turns trying to sell me on the school and community – of which I already knew were fantastic. When the conversation stalled, the athletic director gave the principal a side-eyed glance before clearing his throat and delivering a piece of news.
He said, “While we don’t have a basketball job open at this moment, you’ll have your choice of taking the first head job that becomes available. “
I interrupted, “I’m sorry, I want to be a basketball coach.”
He continued, “I understand that. What we do have is a softball opening and you’d be great for it with your baseball background.”
I laughed and shook my head. “I’ve never even seen a softball game before. And, while I appreciate you thinking about me – I have no desire to coach softball or girls for that matter. I’m sorry but I’m going to have to say no.”
The athletic director pleaded with me to visit with the departing coach who was currently in the building, cleaning out his classroom.
“Just go down and talk to him about the job – he’ll tell you what a great opportunity it is – just talk to him – please.”
Reluctantly, I agreed but it knew it was going to be an exercise in futility.
The classroom where I found Coach Gillen was down a long hallway away from the office, but it was a familiar place. As a junior in high school, I had spent a lot of time sleeping in Mr. Ramsey’s American History class somewhere near the back of the room. The space looked and smelled about the same as it had back then. The walls glistened with a pale-yellow paint, the tiled floor looked slick and clean, while the chalkboard held a semester’s worth of chalk dust in its tray.
“Jerrad,” Gillen started before pausing and looking me in the eye, “don’t take the job. I know they sent you down here thinking I’d tell you to do it – but I can’t lie to you.”
Instantly, I felt relieved as he was telling me exactly what I wanted to hear.
“The team was 7-21 last year. We graduated most of our best players – including all our pitching. The kids coming back are nice kids – but you’ll probably have some issues with parents, and I can’t see it being a good situation. In fact, if I had to guess, you won’t win a single game."
We talked about other topics before I graciously thanked Coach Gillen, and started walking down the long hallway on my way back to the office, where I had firmly decided to inform them that I wouldn’t be taking the job.
However, somewhere along the way, something Coach Gillen had said started to eat at my competitive soul.
By the time, I reached the office, my mind was set.
I pushed through the door, and immediately announced, “I’ll take it.”
The athletic director and principal both flashed smiles with the A.D. jumping to his feet to shake my hand professing, “I knew he’d talk you into it!”
The first game I coached was also the first softball game I had ever seen. We lost to a state-ranked powerhouse in three innings, 12-0. However, even though we lost, I had fallen in love with the game. The speed, the passion, the sheer desire my athletes has shown to compete – it was nothing short of awesome.
I learned so much my first year coaching softball. In full disclosure, I wasn’t a very good coach, but I was passionate, I cared immensely for the girls on our team, and my competitive fire burned white hot.
Coach Gillen had been wrong, we finished the season 17-14 and lost in the district finals, one game away from going to the state tournament in a 2-0 contest. However, in the semi-finals, we met that same state powerhouse who we had lost to in the season opener - only to return the favor and beat them by a score of 7-4.
That team laid the foundation for a high school program who would become a state powerhouse of its own. The following year, the same group, aided by a strong freshman class, finished in the state finals. And for the next five years to follow, Cozad High School would return to the state tournament, winning back-to-back state titles.
A single decision to be a softball coach instead of a basketball coach had changed the course of my life. I often wonder what my life would be like had I refused to drive the 50 miles that Sunday afternoon – or had Coach Gillen never told me that I wouldn’t win a game.
As it all turned out, I’m incredibly grateful, without a single regret for that decision.
Life just happens to be full of these crossroads – and whichever one you take, don’t look back – don’t second guess, for you can never predict what wonderful things might await you along the way.
Today, Jerrad Hardin continues to be involved with softball. Through private lesson work, consuliting with college coaches, and his nationwide softball camps, Jerrad's influence continues to be present. To see Jerrad this summer and work with top college softball coaches, consider attending at camp near you: www.jerradhardin.com