Heaven became a better place on the morning of September 8th when J. Gawen Stoker passed away. That will be the last time you may hear or read me calling him by that name. While that is the name he was given and he was a great friend of mine, he has always and will always be “Coach” Stoker to me.
That isn’t to say he was simply a coach. No, he was much more. He was a husband, a father, a grandfather and to so many people, a friend. I called him Coach for nearly a quarter century and did so out of respect. He may have started off as the coach that a group of us believed was trying to kill us each morning in the summer when we were on the track, but he quickly became a man that not only commanded, but also earned our respect.
As players, we never truly appreciated what he was doing to us every day, and I think it hit some of us at different stages in our lives after our playing days ended. For me, it came while coaching under Tom Gravish at Bellefonte. Gravish was a former player of Coach Stoker’s as well as serving on his staff at Bald Eagle Area. It was at that time that I found myself saying and doing things as Coach Stoker had done when I was in school. I found myself trying to instill the same qualities that he had done with me and I wondered if those players saw me the way we saw him so many years ago. Now, as the coach of my son’s team, the other coaches and I feel his presence on the field and often laugh at things we have dubbed “Stokerisms”.
I admit that I’m being selfish when I say that I lost a man whose impact on my life was much like one a father would have on a son. While my dad has long been and will remain my hero, Coach Stoker stood for many of us as a father figure. Coach touched so many lives and his loss will be felt well beyond his former players and the Bald Eagle Area football family.
Too early we lost a great man, but his legacy will live on. It will live on in not only in those he touched in his life, but also on those Friday nights in the fall when the lights of Alumni Stadium illuminate the evening sky.
I don’t remember telling Coach Stoker how much he meant to me, and for that I am reminded that we should never put off telling those in our lives just how much they mean to us. I think he knew but I am left wishing that I had told him when I had the chance.
Thank you, Coach. May your Eagles soar forever.
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