COACH’S CORNER: Dealing with loss – no matter how small or big – is hardly easy

This 2016 photo shows a DeKalb helmet with stickers to honor players Derek Padilla (34) and Lucas Oberkiser (78), who were killed in a car accident during the season.

Last week we examined the process of growth that football provides young men. The method enables individuals the opportunity to learn what it means to be an everyday hero.

Terms we often associate with those heroes are resilience and grit. During the adventure of 2020, those characteristics seem to be needed more than ever. 

Four years ago this week, we in the DeKalb community suffered a loss that still has profound significance for many of us and continuously remains heavy on my heart.

Over a decade ago, Angola grieved a similar loss.

Last week, DeKalb and Angola had parts of its football experiences ripped away.

A close friend at Traders Point had two weeks of it season taken away.

Several Fort Wayne schools have players missing due to COVID contact tracing.

A week ago, West Noble suffered the loss of one of their seniors.

Columbia City football just lost a recent graduate and his father in a workplace tragedy.

You can never correlate the loss of life to the loss of sport. Experienced losses occur across a broad spectrum and dealing with any disaster is a challenge. But the process of grieving and growth is similar.  

Now and then, someone will reach out or wish to discuss overcoming tragedy. People are attempting to figure out how to understand their internal processes best. There are no great answers to solving all issues at once, no silver bullet, no easy answer to controlling the problem.

Within the situation lies the singular truth of what differentiates the resilient from others. Learning to “control the controllables.” This aphorism is a familiar statement within the football world, and it rings true in many areas of life.

Moving forward, as we discuss loss, we shall speak in generalities. Loss in most forms is significant and means something a bit different to everyone. The roles of service in which we fulfill are often for reasons we do not consciously understand. One must have faith that we are in a position for a cause larger than ourselves. These circumstances within tragedy often call for Hector’s attributes (as referenced last week), of patience, empathy, and unconditional love. 

Columbia City class of 2018 football alum Bronson Ball (left) and West Noble senior Anthony Reyes both recently passed away

As a coach, there often seems to be an irrational, innate and consuming desire to fix every problem in the pursuit of perfection. The commitment to something greater than yourself is a foundational reason why people choose to follow you. It is not because of a title, but they commit to the ideas and causes of what you represent. It is easy to burden and neglect yourself while helping others. Through the deep conversations, the tears, and living other’s struggles, you must focus on your tribulations and personal process. 

Self-preservation does not take you away from your duty to others; it makes you better for everyone around you. The people that you have surrounded yourself with, your confidants that you trust to help you lead, are there to help you as you are there to help them. Use your close-knit tribe to grow stronger. You cannot fix every problem, but enabling the people you trust makes you better at what you wish to achieve. It keeps you healthier along the way. 

As a community member, or member of a tribe, who experiences a difficult loss, it is easy to assume what you are progressing through is uncommonKnow that someone out there has struggled through something similar. You will process the scenario differently, but understanding others’ experiences and perspectives allow you to come out on the other end stronger. If you spend a moment to look, there are people always willing to help, often in places you would not assume. 

As coaches, we often speak about surrounding yourself with others on the same mission. In the face of loss, each of your tribe members has undergone hardship. Your group now possesses a deeper binding purpose. Help each other heal correctly and do not allow others to fall too far. If as a group you cannot seem to recover over time, reach out to others for guidance. Communicate.

If your group is not improving, communicate with people outside your tribe. If you cannot find anybody, keep reaching out and speaking with people you feel can help. There is no shame in wanting to rebuild yourself and others through tribulations.

As a broader community, if you see somebody in need of support, give it. We exist in times of conflict, political strife, division and uncertainty. These issues can make it difficult to reach out or offer help. Our game teaches us that love and respect for others circumvent shallower issues that other people perpetuate. You can positively influence our community by merely not embracing indifference. Your actions are 100 percent in your control. Do not allow tragedy to drive you in anger, revenge, or destruction, but rather let it guide you to make your community stronger through adversity. By purely helping those locally who are in need, you make a positive difference and a bond to make your community a healthier place.

DeKalb High School football coach Pete Kempf leads his team out of the locker room before its game against Columbia City October 15, 2016 days after the passing of players Derek Padilla and Lucas Oberkiser.

When you can return to a sense of your new standard, the world will be a bit of a different place. Your perspective will have shifted. The world will often move faster than you are ready. Growing from this position can prove just as challenging as living during a misfortune. Starting a new normal does not mean forgetting the past. I am a sucker for “win one for the Gipper”-type speeches. However, this is not a long-term sustainable perspective.

The phrase that it needs to be is “win WITH the Gipper.” Living with memories in your heart, of individuals, or the hard work, commitment, and love of your brotherhood creates healing that lasts a lifetime. Play and live with, never just for, those memories.

An individual is defined by the person who comes out on the other end of overcoming losses and challenges. Therefore, when you are partaking within the process of grieving, you should always surround yourself with people who want to heal and grow with you. Capture these feelings, hardships, and challenges within this moment. Play and live with the purpose that the difficulties or losses provide. Do not give up on your mission, tribe, or community and embrace the God-given challenge. Play with those individuals and hardships within your hearts. That is how those people or experiences who were lost can live forever within us.

These trials and tribulations make us better as a whole. Together we will pursue and overcome, and united, we will win in the end. 

Yours in the Pursuit of Excellence,

Pete Kempf

Coach’s Corner is a weekly feature at Outside the Huddle written by Pete Kempf, former DeKalb High School head football coach. Coach’s Corner appears every Monday during the prep football season. These opinions represent those of the writer. No opinions expressed on Outside the Huddle represent those of any of our advertisers. 

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