Action for Ace
On the eve of our biggest camp of the summer, I jumped on a plane for Pittsburgh, rented a car and made the drive to Bethany, WV – population: one and a half pages of a phone book.
Bethany is dead in the summer. It’s a small and quiet town even when the college is in session, but in July, you could pretty much sun bathe in the middle of Main Street without a care in the world. Bethany’s not going to be on anyone’s list of vacation destinations. There’s just not a lot there. The busiest intersection doesn’t even have a stop light (you’d have to drive eight miles to see one of those). It’s in the business district, which consists of two general stores, side by side and one of them out of business, which sit across the street from Chuck’s Bison Inn which closes its doors during the summer recess. So in case you're checking your math, there are basically 3 businesses and two of them aren't even open. And that’s it.
Yeah, a block up the hill is the post-office. But with the advent of email, college kids aren’t much for being pen-pals these days. Anyway, like I was saying, Bethany is a small town. People don’t just go there. Especially not in the summer. There’s usually no reason.
Way back in the winter of 1985 I took a recruiting trip to Bethany and immediately fell in love with the place. I got to play some indoor with the college guys and showed well enough to get the attention of the assistant coach, Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward. He sold me on the idea of coming to Bethany and winning a national title. That was enough to convince me of what I already knew; that when August rolled around, I was going to be a Bison.
I played for God-only-knows how many coaches in my soccer life. And I more or less liked them all. But Ace was the one I wanted to kill for. When I took the field, I would break bones to please that guy. He was my coaching soul mate. He knew I had a lot of aggression and he knew what buttons to push to get it out of me. I loved playing for Ace. It was my favorite time as a soccer player.
In 2006, during one of my previous blog lives, reflecting on our time together, I wrote this:
Ace is one of the most likeable people you could ever hope to meet. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s really just a kid. He’s a human cartoon, with a barrel chest and a big, bushy blonde mop of hair and a high pitch voice. Like many others, Ace came from a big city (Toronto) and fell in love with this tiny little town and its soccer program and stuck around for years after he graduated. He is the heartbeat of the alumni soccer association… I loved playing for Ace. At the age of seventeen I wanted to be Ace. He was far and away the best coach I ever had. But more than anything, Ace knew how to push buttons, particularly mine. Let’s face it, I’m not all that hard to figure out anyway. The Dan Blank instruction manual is about half a page, double-spaced. It was even smaller when I was seventeen years old. It didn’t take a whole lot of advanced psychology to get me in a frenzy. But Ace did it better than anyone else ever had. He had me figured out to a tee and he loved it. So did I. He had, at his disposal, a human wrecking ball that would act on command. I had a coach who didn’t try to stifle my aggression. Heck, he tried to make it reproduce. Ace knew he could get me riled and he totally abused the privilege. There were times he would flirt with my girlfriend just to get me bent. And once I tried to fight him because he was wearing a tee-shirt from the team that had knocked us out of the NCAA tournament.
I remember one training session in particular from my freshman year. It was a fitness day and we were getting absolutely worked. At one point we had to do as many push-ups as possible in a minute. Now I was never Mr. Push-Ups in the first place, but I was killing myself to crank out my best effort. I had gotten to twenty or twenty-five, and just for a second I paused at the top for a quick rest. Ace saw me and started screaming, “Blank’s being lazy! Don’t be like Danny Blank!”
Oh my God I wanted to punch the guy in the head. But even more than that, I wanted to work twice as hard. I never wanted Ace to think of me as lazy. On game days I wanted to kill for that man. It took eighteen years to realize this, but I was always fighting for his approval.
Bethany Soccer may have the strongest alumni association in all of college soccer. On our alumni weekend we don’t have an alumni game; we have an alumni tournament – two of them actually – an under-35 and an over-35. Typically over 120 former soccer players appear each spring to lace ‘em up and tell war stories about how good we really were. And Ace is the reason for that. For a quarter of a century he has been the common thread holding it all together, arranging all the gatherings, keeping everyone in the loop, keeping Bethany Soccer important to all of us. He’s the great connector. He counts friends on every team that has ever played for the college, even those teams that played a decade before he had ever heard the word Bethany. And his circle of friends reaches well beyond that. He’s got a charisma that pulls people in. Soccer campers, business people, college presidents… Mia Hamm… they all call Ace a friend… because people just gravitate to him. It’s really quite absurd.
The thing about Ace is that he is always giving. And I do mean always. The guy is like Santa Claus. Every time he reaches into his pocket it seems he pulls out something to give to someone. I cannot possibly overstate how much this man gives and gives and gives. It’s clearly his favorite thing and on my honor I’ve never seen anyone better at it. About nine years ago he started a clothing line and he made (and still makes) really cool gear. But those of us who know him thought from the beginning it would be a disaster simply because Ace would never sell something to someone when he could just give it to them instead. In my own closet there are five of his t-shirts and 3 of his hats and he still has never asked me for a dime. And when I tried shopping on his website, the damn shopping-cart function was disabled. It’s literally impossible to give this man money. His entire existence is predicated on the solitary principle of making other people happier than they were ten seconds ago. How many people have you met in your life like that? I know exactly how many I’ve met and I can count them on one finger. And those of us lucky enough to be a part of Bethany Soccer and the Bethany Soccer Alumni Association know how much better our lives are because of the man we call Ace.
Despite his Canadian roots, Ace's inner compass always pointed south toward the beach. When people talk about Ace, the word 'soul' inevitably makes it into the conversation. And Ace certainly has a surfer's soul. He digs white sand and salt air and a mellow sunset and afternoons mingling barefoot with the locals. On the beaches of Anna Maria Island is where his heart is content. It's the perfect place for a guy who just wants to find peace. It's where about two years ago his son, Jackson Kai, was born. That boy is the apple of Ace's eye.
In 2007 Ace was diagnosed with cancer. The surgeons removed a grapefruit sized tumor from his abdomen. They thought they got it all. They didn’t. So through the years Ace has battled cancer and chemo, fighting like hell through both of them. Still, the cancer remains. Now it’s called Stage 4. You don’t need a single day of Med School to know that that’s no damn good. No. Not good at all.
A few weeks back a movement began called Action for Ace, part reunion, part fundraiser. Ace was all in favor of the reunion but not surprisingly, wanted no part of a fundraiser. So thankfully the organizers didn’t give him a choice. Bill Denniston, Ace’s lifelong friend and teammate and currently the men’s coach at Robert Morris University, ran point on this whole project and when Ace wavered, Billy simply said, “Shut up and show up.” So Ace did. Along with 220 others.
People flocked to Bethany like a gold rush. Friends he hadn’t seen since high school made the drive down from Toronto. His roommate from the Tampa Bay Rowdies who he hadn’t seen in 25 years was there. From all directions they came. From California and Florida and New Hampshire. Friends and family flooded this tiny town for no other reason than to show their support. Naturally, as gathering are wont to do in Bethany, it turned into one helluva party.
Time stands still in Bethany. The place never seems to change. Well almost. In 1986 you could by a thick, delicious, fresh cut deli sandwich at Chambers General Store for $1.00. In 2006 you still could. But now that same sandwich costs $1.25. I was mortified to learn that prices had gone up 25% in just 5 years.
Our reunion was a lot like other BASA weekends, just without the soccer. There was a lot of reconnecting with old friends. There was a lot of laughter. There was a lot of beer.
On Saturday morning we stuck about 80 hackers into golf carts and did our best to kill a perfectly good golf course. I golfed with Jack Shafer and his wife Megan, and Eduardo (Ed of Spain) Ibanez. Let me be perfectly frank about this – we’re no darn good. But we had a blast being that way. The highlight of our lowlights was Eduardo’s attempt at a tee-shot that sent a ten-inch divot fifteen yards down the tee-box with the tee still in it. I’ve never seen anything even close to that. We had Eddie pose with his divot for a photo like he had landed a trophy trout.
That night we held a picnic down in Bethany Park next to the baseball field. No, it’s not a baseball stadium. It’s a field. No lights and a set of aluminum bleachers that can seat about thirty. That’s life in small town Division III athletics. Food was served. Joe Doiron wrote a beautiful song and sang it to the masses. It put lumps in throats and tears in eyes. There was an auction – a really good one. People made donations. All in all, the weekend raised $30,000.
I said good-bye to my friends around 2 A.M. and headed back to the airport for my 6 A.M. flight, figuring I might catch some sleep at the gate. I didn’t. I needed to get back for camp but my head was anywhere but Athens, GA and the litany of phone calls and emails I was about to get about what size sheets the campers would need to bring and which kid wanted to switch roommates. As much fun as we had, there was always that thing lingering beneath our every thought. We were there to celebrate… but that worked better in theory than practice. I spent the better part of five years at Bethany as a student. In the past two decades I’ve probably been back 30 times. But this is the first time I ever left feeling like an adult. It’s hard to stomach this, but play time really is over. We’re not kids any more... and this time I mean it. We’re real-world people dealing with real-world problems. And none bigger than this.
It’s funny, these things that can give you perspective. The things that have been stressing me out lately… after this past weekend… they just don’t matter anymore. The people who want money from me? Here. Take it. If that’s what you need to be whole, then help yourself. I look at my wife and my little girl and this very cool life I get to lead earning a living doing what I love, and I remember how truly terrific I have it.
One of Ace’s old college friends couldn’t make it back, but she sent an email. I don’t think anyone could ever sum up Paul Hayward better than this:
Paul, you have such a unique soul. You hold no grudges or hatred against anyone, even someone who may have hurt you. Some people may think you have your head in the clouds but you know it’s easier to see the SUN that way!!! Here’s to you as you are embraced by so many that love you this weekend in a place that you helped make so special for me and so many others just by being yourself,….a kind, sweet, happy, peaceful man who just wants to have fun in life. Thank you for so many wonderful memories.
I’m going to send some money Ace’s way tonight. I hope you will, too. When you finally meet the man, you’ll be glad you did.
I was also going to direct you to his website to buy some very cool gear. But wouldn’t you know… the shopping cart isn’t working.