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Rallying around a coach

December 17, 2006 12:50 am

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Coach Billy Greer runs drills with a young player's help before a game in spring 2005. 1217vpamrhine1.jpg

Coach Billy Greer shares a moment with his wife, Jennifer, and son Ryan at the hospital.

UNTIL MY KIDS began play- ing sports, I really didn't know much about youth coaches--the men and women who give their time and effort to provide children a foundation in athletics.

As superhuman as some of these devoted individuals seem to be, we learned recently that one of our coaches--one who stands out for many area families--is susceptible as anyone to life-changing illness. If you happen to be a federal employee with annual leave to share, you couldn't make a more welcome donation.

But let me offer a little personal perspective first. When I was young, my parents gave me a choice: Little League baseball (which was all there was way back then), or Boy Scouts. Since my dad was the Scoutmaster, the question was pretty much answered before it was asked. I guess my dad was a coach in the sense that he helped mold many young boys into solid young men.

My kids are just 10 and 11, but they've already had many baseball, soccer, and basketball coaches over the years, and all of them have shown a selfless devotion to the kids and the sport. We've had winning seasons and winless seasons, but when the games are over, the kids always come away better off from the experience. They've learned sportsmanship.

Parents often live these experiences vicariously through their children. My dad's Scouting youth was interrupted by the Depression, so when I received my Eagle, I'm sure he felt a well-deserved share of the pride--and that he'd finally earned his Eagle as well.

Because I was never involved in organized youth sports, my kids' athletic pursuits are a thrill and a source of pride for me. I want them to have fun and be the best they can be as they live experiences that eluded me.

In February 2005, my son decided he'd focus on baseball. To raise his level of competition, we signed him up for the Spotsylvania Babe Ruth Baseball league.

Babe Ruth officials held what they call a "one-day look" on a blustery March Saturday to give the coaches an idea of the talent they had to choose from. The coaches later got together, held a draft, and selected their teams.

We got a call telling us our coach would be Billy Greer, and the team would be the Spotsylvania Royals. Subsequent calls would fill us in on the practice schedule and other basic information. We liked the open line of communication.

From the beginning, we could tell that some of these 9- and 10-year-old boys had a bit more experience and skill than others. But the Babe Ruth organization, and Coach Billy, assured all parents that their kids would get significant playing time.

Once the practices and the games began, a couple of things became apparent. First, Coach Billy knows how to coach. He runs great practices, is always encouraging to the kids, and rewards effort as well as success. He knows how to bring out the best in any child who's willing to give his or her best.

Somehow, he manages to do this while holding down his federal government job at Fort Belvoir.

Second, it was apparent that my son was going to have to earn more than minimal playing time. He wasn't in the starting lineup at first, but he tried hard when Coach Billy called on him. After a few games he even received a game ball--not because he had outperformed his teammates, but because he had raised his own level of play.

Coach Billy has a reason for everything he does. Once he sees a kid's desire to play, he knows how to nurture that kid's ability.

Grown-ups call it "positive reinforcement." A young player simply feels good about himself, and wants to do still better next time.

As the season progressed, so did my son. He became a starter, getting his hits, laying down bunts, and stealing bases. After he made a fine, game-ending catch in right field, I remember in particular the smile on Coach Billy's face. It was one of those I-knew-he-could-do-it expressions. And it was genuine.

The Royals went 11-1 that season, and won the regular season championship.

And here's a bonus: We learned later that Coach Billy had been called out of town the day of the draft. Aside from a couple of players he knew to put in for, such as his own son, he was left with kids the other coaches hadn't chosen. From that, he built a championship team.

Billy, who is a gentle bear of a man, started coaching when he was 16 for his nephew's T-ball team. He's coached in a volunteer role every year since, and in recent years has organized travel baseball teams for his son. He also held a paid position as a girls' basketball coach at Fredericksburg Academy from 2003 to 2005.

Back in the early spring, Coach Billy invited my son and several other boys to join him for some evening basketball practices at Battlefield Elementary. Who wouldn't welcome another opportunity to learn from Coach Billy? As each practice ended he would schedule another, and another.

Of course Coach Billy's son was always on hand with his "A-game," but it's clear that Billy lives for this stuff, and coaches for the sheer joy of it.

Just for fun a few years ago, he founded a summer weekend basketball camp in his Kingswood subdivision in Spotsylvania County. With some volunteer help and a nominal fee to cover expenses, the camp grew to include 50 kids this past August.

It was around that time that Coach Billy needed to have the pain in his hip checked out. We heard that it wasn't a pulled muscle, or some other sports-related injury. It was osteosarcoma, a cancer that develops in bone tissue--in this case in Billy's hip and pelvis--and almost always in kids rather than adults.

He has undergone a series of chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore--including one on Thanksgiving Day--and was scheduled to have surgery to remove the tumor this past Friday. The pain and sickness he's endured from complications and side effects are more than most of us could imagine.

As incredibly difficult as this time must be, Billy's wife, Jennifer, has kept the information flowing through an online service called CarePages (carepages.com). She remains upbeat and expresses their confidence that Billy will be up and around soon. And there's always an emphasis on giving thanks to those who have helped out, or simply offered their thoughts and prayers.

She reported recently that they returned home from an elongated stay in Baltimore to discover that neighbors and family members had decorated their home for Christmas, inside and out.

A computer specialist with the Defense Technical Information Center for 16 years, Coach Billy now needs more annual leave. Not one to take time for himself, he'd piled up some 1,100 hours of sick and annual leave. But he's worked only about 50 hours--all of it from home--since August, and his leave will run out in January.

The federal government has a leave-sharing program, and employees who have surplus time can donate it directly to Billy. Employees can access OPM Form 630-A or -B, at opm.gov/forms/html/opm.asp, and submit it to the Office of Personnel Management.

And this just in: Coach Billy will be the beneficiary of the 23rd annual oyster roast sponsored by Friendship Baptist Church and White Oak Equipment, on March 3, 2007.

One thing's for sure: No matter how much people give to Billy now, it's no match for what he's already given countless area kids. And he's only 37 years old.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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