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  • Pat Melgares

No Ordinary Joe's: The Newton and Vigil Friendship

In 1980, I was what Joe I. Vigil would call “just a pup,” a wide-eyed junior high kid attending a cross country camp at Adams State College in my hometown, Alamosa, Colorado.

The camp was led by Coach Vigil, who quickly was becoming a legendary figure in U.S. distance running. His Adams State College team had recently won it’s third NAIA championship, and just a few months later would win its fourth.

But that year, he had invited a great friend of his to give a motivational talk to the campers…some high school coach from Illinois by the name of Joe Newton.

Maybe some of the others in that room knew it, but Joe Newton was the greatest high school coach in America at the time – and in fact, all-time. His York High School teams dominated Illinois High School cross country, and were considered the country’s greatest team most years, before there were actually meets to decide that title on the course.

By the time Newton’s 60-year coaching career was done (1956-2016), he had amassed 28 state championships and 44 top three finishes at York High School. He was named the national high school coach of the year four times, and in 1988, he became the first high school coach ever to be named to a U.S. Olympic coaching staff – selected by his good friend Joe I. Vigil.

Even greater, Newton loved every member of his team equally. He proved it every day. Aside from his coaching acumen, he was equally adept at showing respect for the slowest runner on the team as he did for the fastest runners on the team. A York tradition was for every runner to shake Coach Newton’s hand at the end of practice each day. Every…single…runner had to come by and shake his hand, and Newton would treat them like they were the most important person on the team in that moment. For many years, the York High School team consisted of more than 100 runners. By the time he retired in 2016, many of his teams had more than 200 runners.

Looking back to the running camp in 1980, I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember vividly the message that Newton gave to the 100 or so campers:

“People are going to ridicule you for being dedicated, but be dedicated anyway.”

“People may laugh and wonder why you work so hard, but work hard anyway.”

“Others may shun you and look the other way when you sacrifice, but sacrifice anyway.”

And on it went with a variety of similar messages. It was dynamic, with each message carrying equal parts of animation from the charismatic coach.

Twenty-eight years later, I had the great opportunity to be on a committee that organized a coaching clinic in Kansas City, Kansas featuring Joe I. Vigil, Joe Newton and Danny Green – a highly successful high school coach, as well, at The Woodlands in Texas.

I gotta say, I felt a little sorry for Danny Green. He was a great coach himself, but having to follow up Joe Newton and Joe I. Vigil on the speaking circuit…? That’s a tough gig.

Newton and Vigil, simply, were sheer electricity in front a crowd. By 2008, they were both moving a little bit slower, but it was amazing once they were introduced to speak. Suddenly, their backs straightened, their knees no longer slowed their gait and they went into full warp speed. Minutes into a talk, you rarely heard a peep out of the audience as they seemed to be clinging to every word. Newton and Vigil were certainly no ordinary Joe’s when it came to teaching fellow coaches.

But here’s something that truly made these guys special: They are as humble of human beings as you’d ever meet. Despite their wild success, they were the most approachable men I have ever met.

One night during that clinic in 2008, we took the three men to an out-of-the-way barbecue joint in Kansas City, one of those where you stand in line, order your food, get your own drink and sit at steel chairs with a wooden tabletop. Nothing fancy, except we had an insider who knew it was some of the best BBQ in Kansas City.

Newton sipped his drink: “Ah, this is the best lemonade I’ve ever had,” he said. A few of us kinda laughed.

While we waited for our food, Newton, Vigil and Green dominated the conversation with a lively back-and-forth that was mostly them teasing each other. “Man, my shoulders are sore,” Vigil said, “because I was carrying Joe all day!”

“Beautiful, baby. Beautiful,” Newton laughed.

And on it went until our food arrived, at which point Newton proudly proclaimed: “This is the best barbecue I have ever had!”

The positive energy that evening was amazing, something I’ll never forget.

Joe Newton passed away in December, 2017, but the friendship the two men had will be remembered forever. There are at least two videos online that symbolize their great relationship.

I love the introduction that Newton gives for Vigil prior to a talk to the York High School team in 2014: “He’s the No. 1 distance coach of all time in the United States, I say in the world. I met him 40 years ago. He’s like my brother. He’s 85, I’m 85 and a half – so I got him by half a year. He’s the most dynamic speaker I have ever heard in my life. You know what he’s charging me today – zip! All I have to do is put him at my house to sleep, take him to the airport tomorrow.

“He’s been my friend for 40 years. He’s a real friend. You got friends, you say you need something, they say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry my wife died…’” As the York High School team members laughed, Newton said, “Oh, I guess you don’t have wives.”

There are some jewels in that 31 minute video, as Vigil shows pictures and talks about Deena Kastor, Meb Keflizghi, Stefano Baldini, Pat Porter, Ryan Shay, Brenda Martinez and other great distance runners that he’s helped to coach. That 31 minute video is available on Runnerspace: https://www.runnerspace.com/video.php?video_id=125675.

But I was bouncing off the walls watching a 2008 video of Vigil talking to an earlier York High School team. See for yourself:



Electricity, right?

Some of the nuggets I especially enjoy about that 2008 video include these:

“I think every day you people get up you get challenged. You may not know that you’re being challenged, but you’re being challenged. The challenge we’re going to give you people today is I want each and every one of you to be an impact person for your team. By being an impact person, bring something to the team that will make a difference and elevate the men of York to a higher level…

“For every one of you it’s going to be something different. It may be working a little harder, demonstrating a little leadership…contributing to the team in one way or another. Because you have no right to be a member of this team unless you can contribute to it somehow. You have to work for the right to be on this team. Look at the number of runners who have run for York in the past and contributed to the legacy that you’re a part of. Well, what are you going to leave for your team as you go on? That’s the challenge: Be an impact person. Stand up to that challenge and be an impact person…at home, at Sunday school, at school, for your team, for your friends – everyone that you get involved with.”

Then, there’s Vigil’s talk about the journey.

“You’re on a journey right now. If you jump in your car and you go from here to California, you’re going to dig out a road map to see how far it is, where you’re going to get gas, where you’re going to rest… Running cross country is the same thing. You start preparing for it, it’s a journey. At the end of the journey is a national championship. The state championship is a big stop along the way…every day you have to accomplish something. If you miss a day, you’re out of it. You don’t miss; if you’re going to eat today, you run today…

“What are you doing to prepare for that journey. Don’t be a regular student that is assigned five pages of reading tonight and go home and read your five pages. Prepare for tomorrow…read seven, eight nine. Do a little bit more than what is asked of you.”

And Vigil’s words about courage.

“Courage is something that doesn’t come about easy. The way you’re able to pick yourself up when things are going bad. The way you look at your training when you don’t think you’re going to make your goal, or you’re not going to make the team, or what have you. You’ve got to have a lot of courage in everything you do…

“There are just 24 hours in a day. Compartmentalize them so you can do (what you need to do). You have to develop the courage to say no when people ask you to do things that you shouldn’t be doing.”

Finally, a poem that Vigil often recites and is inspired by R. Tait McKenzie’s iconic medallion, ‘The Joy of Effort:’

“What other human endeavor can match the healthy ego satisfaction and the moral self-discipline supplied by mental courage, bodily endurance and muscular strength – those incomparable instruments for living most and serving best? You want to be a good team member, a good brother, a good son, a good friend, a good student, a good teammate? The more courage, strength and endurance that you develop, the better off you’re going to be able to serve your team. Do it to the maximum.”

Newton and Vigil. Great coaches, but even greater human beings. Their impact on distance running is undeniable.

Their impact on thousands – more likely millions -- of lives is legendary.

***

Order your copy of Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil, now available from Soulstice Publishing, www.soulsticepublishing.com.

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