“On the field!”

It’s been twenty-five years, and I can still hear the growling voice of Coach Burkhead yelling at my teammates and me.

“Off the field!”

It was supposed to be a normal baseball practice with my Police Boys Club #8 team in Northwest DC. But Coach Burkhead spotted one of my teammates walking off the field in between innings of our previous game. Now, we all were paying for it.

“On the field!”

For the rest of the practice, Coach Burkhead had us sprint from the bench to our positions on the field, and then back again. Dozens — and dozens — and dozens of times. “Welcome to the real world, gentlemen,” he said at the end of practice. “You will hustle to your position every time.”

Today, such behavior from a coach might prompt threats of a lawsuit from outraged parents. Back in the mid-1980s it was what you came to expect from Coach Burkhead. He was an institution within Police Boys Club #8. A gruff, thickly-built cop, he intimidated younger kids who had yet to have him as a coach and inspired devotion among older players who had survived a year or two on his team. He was defiantly “old school,” even then.

On my team, Coach Burkhead worked with a motley collection of hard-headed 14-year-olds from a cross-section of the city – private school kids and public school kids, white and black, spoiled and neglected. He held all of us to the same high expectations. Unlike college admissions officers, he did not bend his rules for children of the wealthy. Unlike some of my public school teachers, he did not excuse kids from disadvantaged families when they behaved poorly. No matter our background, he treated us all harshly but fairly. You had to earn everything you got.

Coach Burkhead taught us the fundamentals of baseball, from how to hit the cutoff man to why we should always take the first pitch. He also taught us the fundamentals of manhood. Though his discipline could be exhausting, he was never arbitrary – he carefully crafted his message in a language that teenage boys would understand. And that day we sprinted on and off the field was a lesson that the little things matter, that how we act reflects not just on ourselves but also our team, and that hustling to our positions says something about our character.

Coach Burkhead could accept errors and strikeouts. What he would not tolerate was laziness. He did not suffer carelessness. He did not excuse a lack of effort. What mattered to him is what matters in the real world: your character.

And now, 25 years later, whatever field I happen to be on, I always hustle to my position.