By Paulette Ballard
As told by Steve D’Agostino from Mooresville
My unforgettable moment was just before the start of my senior year in high school.
I was seeing a rheumatologist, who was performing numerous tests to determine the cause of my chronic joint and muscle pain. This severe pain had been persistent for three years and my family doctor finally concluded it wasn’t just “growing pains.”
So here I was in summer session football, awaiting the start of senior year and I receive news I never expected. The doctor said, “Steve, you will no longer be able to play contact sports”.
The impact of these words was a real blow to my psyche.
I processed this news as best I could and knew I needed to share this information with my coaches and teammates.
Dreading what I had to do, I arrived at the gym just before afternoon practice began. I barely understood my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, and I was visibly upset, but I tried to explain the meaning of this to my head coach, Joe Leterra. I believe he sensed something was seriously wrong as I shared the information from my doctor. My buddies and I had played together for the past three years, and as seniors, this was our time to shine.
I had no idea what to expect, but I feared being left out and cast aside. It took all I had in me to tell the coach I could no longer play football.
He and the other coaches were more empathetic than I could have thought possible. Without a moment’s hesitation, he rambled off a new plan and insisted I remain as an integral part of the team. He told me my new responsibility would be as an assistant to the coaching staff. He took me to the coach’s locker room, assigned me a locker, issued me a pair of rubber cleats, a whistle and my practice and game jerseys. Coach then explained the new plan of action to the other coaches, who equally embraced my new role. We proceeded to the gym and Coach Leterra gathered the team together on the bleachers and explained my situation in a kind and compassionate manner.
My fears and concerns subsided, and I began to feel excited about my new role on the team. Just imagine – the coaches and I were now on a first name basis and I was being allowed to participate in game-planning strategies and other duties that players were normally exempt from.
I never missed a day of practice that year, and I was on the sidelines for every game. I assisted with drills at daily practice sessions, wore headphones during games, helped to scout the other teams and offered play call ideas.
This was an unexpected situation with unanticipated outcomes. Staying active as a member of the team boosted my self-esteem. The disappointing diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis at age 16 was upsetting, but Coach Leterra, being the kind and humane man that he was, took a bad situation and changed the outcome for me.
The limitations that go along with rheumatoid arthritis were devastating for a senior football player, but I was privileged to have a coach who cared for me as a young man and a part of his team. He made me feel valued and whole again.
The interactions with my coach that day made a lasting and profound effect on me, and I try to use his approach in my life now. I learned a lot about life and how to treat people from his courageous and compassionate leadership. Thanks Coach!
Paulette Ballard collects interesting, funny and unusual stories from people in the Lake Norman area. If you have a story you would like to submit for her column, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the subject line type “For your column.” Include your name and phone number for her to contact you.