We bid farewell last week to a true American hero. John Wooden, who led UCLA to ten NCAA Championships in a twelve-season stretch had a gift for accomplishing what others thought impossible.  The legacy he leaves behind, both on and off the court, is worthy of emulation.

The sports world was well aware of Coach Wooden’s skills when it came to shaping the athletes the likes of Kareem Abdul Jabbbar and Bill Walton.  What is lesser known is the impact that John Wooden had off the court in the lives of people he would never meet.  I was on of those blessed to count him as a Life Coach.

Having grown up without a dad, I often studied father figures as I grew to manhood.  One day I decided to write a letter asking Coach Wooden to share any advice he would give me were I his own son.  Imagine my amazement when a lengthy response arrived in my mailbox written in the crisp, neat handwriting of the coach himself.

Included in the content were these words:

Dear Rev. Shuler:

Mark Twain was speaking for many of us when he said, “My father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to be around him when I was a boy of fourteen, but when I got to be twenty-one I was surprised at how much my father had learned in seven years.”

It wasn’t until years after I had graduated from a small country grade school in south-central Indiana that I began to appreciate the card that my father gave me on the occasion.  On one side were the lines – “Four things a man must learn to do if he would make his life more true; To think without confusion clearly, To love his fellow man sincerely, To act from honest motives purely, To trust in God and Heaven securely.”

On the other side was a seven-point creed, which he asked me to try to follow.  The points were:

Be true to yourself.

Make each day your masterpiece.

Help others.

Drink deeply from good books -- especially the Bible.

Make friendship a fine art.

Build a shelter against a rainy day.

Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Although I fall short of being what I should be, I am confident that attempting to follow the advice of my father has made me a better person than I would have been.

Sincerely, 

John Wooden

Thus began a correspondence that enriched my life.  The greatest coach in the world found time to invest not only in Jabbar and Walton but also in those less known. Once I asked him who, in his opinion, were the greatest athletes of the 20th Century and which sports events he felt stood out above all others.  His response was as follows:

Dear Rev. Shuler:

Since I am most reluctant to single out any one as the best, I will say among the best athletes of the 20th Century are-

Football – Jerry Rice

Baseball – Babe Ruth, Willie Mays

Basketball – Michael Jordan

Boxing – Muhammad Ali

Swimming – Mark Spitz

Golf – Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus

Track and Field – Jesse Owens

Hockey – Wayne Gretsky

Decathlon – Jim Thorpe

Memorable Sports Events

Joe Di Maggio’s – 56 game hitting streak

Cal Ripkin’s – Consecutive game record

Jessie Owen’s – Several world records in one afternoon

Byron Nelson’s –Consecutive wins

Lou Gehrig’s – Retirement remarks

Don Larsen’s – Perfect game in World Series 

USA’s Olympic Hockey victory over Russia.

Sincerely, 

John Wooden

I will miss the coach with the common touch.  His rare quality of bringing forth potential overlooked by others inspires me.  In a world in search of role models he fills the void.  John Wooden’s greatest legacy is found not on courts of wood or in trophy’s that shine amidst bright lights.  

The measure of his life is revealed in the quality of his investment in others.  Because he lived his life with excellence he made us believe that we could do the same. He didn’t wait until the last moments of the game to give his best effort.  Throughout his life he exemplified the spirit that causes others to rise from their seats and to, more importantly, rise on the inside.  His was an exemplary life.

Rev. Bill Shuler is pastor of Capital Life Church in Arlington, Virginia.

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