Throughout America, high school coaches of all shapes, sizes and sexes are grinding their molars into talcum powder.
Spring is chasing summer, the sun sets long after dinnertime, and anyone who’s ever played a sport in high school knows this is the time when young athletes morph like larvae — from bad to mediocre, mediocre to good, good to great.
They’re running on a track, shooting at a hoop, lifting impossible weights to show off their flex appeal.
Guaranteed, all along that continuum, from Hobbs to Shiprock to Lordsburg to Raton to Santa Fe, is a coach — yup, that one, wearing the bad polyester-knit shorts — who is overseeing the whole transformation.
Bill Moon is one of those people.
In any other year, this would be his time at Capital High. May, June and July provide a unique and perfect chance to bond and mold with three or four or five dozen kids who want to play football. With the urgency of Friday nights still months in the distance, crisp early mornings and warm summer nights provide the chance to talk about ball or talk about life, or really, just talk. It’s not all simply workouts and sweat.
The people part is why lifers like Moon got into coaching in the first place. The wins are fun. The wins are sweet. Sometimes, they’re all-consuming. But the relationships … those last long after the trophies lose their shine and begin gathering dust in a glass case.
“It’s a face-to-face, person-to-person, handshake-to-handshake, pat-on-the-back way of communicating,” Moon says of coaching in general and his style in particular. “But how do you do the communicating now?”
It’s not as if Moon doesn’t visit with his players. There are ways, all electronic and a little artificial. But really, it’s not the same. What COVID-19 steals from a kid — and really, their teachers — is not the ability to learn, but the ability to create a shared experience. The disease unplugs us from one another. For most adults, that may not be the worst thing. For a 16-year-old, still awkwardly searching for the one connection that may make high school worthwhile, it’s devastating.
Moon is 70, one helluva long way from 16. The stay-at-home orders and a computer-only spring semester have basically deprived him of the thing he likes most and does best — relating to players.
“It’s a perfectly selfish thing for me,” he says. “The look on a kid’s face, the revelation moment when they get something you’re talking about … I get a lot more out of that than they do.”
Few in the history of New Mexico high school sports can synthesize synapse into quote like Moon, who is in his second tour at Capital after stops at Rio Rancho, Santa Fe High and Española Valley. He is a one-man Billibuster, having outlasted every tape-recorder battery and reporter’s notebook in the state. The first time I took him on, back in the ‘90s for a feature story as he was about to lead a fledgling Rio Rancho program into existence, was a stunning tour de force. He was the only coach I ever met who could meld the growls of Vince Lombardi and lyrics of Mick Jagger into a unique, coherent word picture … and then really get going.
Ninety minutes into a 30-minute interview, I needed smelling salts.
But even then, it was clear Moon was more than talk. Watching him around kids, it was apparent his passion to teach came from those moments that spur memories long after a season ends. You’d think those happen more often when you’ve got a winner, and they do, but they’re also pretty common on teams that are 4-6 and lucky to get out of, say, Artesia alive.
Moon, who’s won 112 games, largely in places where wins are hard to come by, says the toughest part about this spring — and maybe this fall, if high school sports are suspended indefinitely — is that he loves this particular Capital team. It doesn’t hurt that the Jaguars could be as good as they’ve been in a long time, with standout running back Luke Padilla back for his senior year. But he’s got a lot of other guys he likes who don’t make the paper.
“We’ve got great kids,” he says.
For now, all he can do is deal with his players via the methods we’ve all come to accept. He FaceTimes with them. He’s the king of texting.
“I just sorta pop into their lives at irregular moments,” he says.
COVID-19 has made almost every moment irregular — awkward, uncomfortable, uncertain. In a lot of ways, the whole world is 16 again. But not in the good way.
That’s why I’m hoping for a form of normalcy to return in the fall — to gyms and fields all over the state; to a place like Capital; to a guy like Bill Moon.
It’d be good to see a revelation for a change.