The Greatest Christmas Gift a Coach Could Ask For

By Michael Spinner, Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach, Pace University @PaceWLax

As we have reached the holiday season, along with a bit of a lull in the lacrosse world, I have been tasked with writing about my favorite Christmas present… from the eyes of a coach. Being Jewish, such a discussion brings with it a slew of inherent challenges, but – the intrepid reporter that I am – I made the commitment to power through it.

Photo courtesy of Pace University Athletic Communications.
  Photo courtesy of Pace University Athletic Communications.

After all, this is my 18th season on the sidelines, somewhere, and there have been many different coaching related presents to come my way. When I began coaching women’s lacrosse, some of my players still used wooden sticks, the radical new restraining line had only just been implemented into the sport, and recruiting phone calls were made from – get this – a land-line! I’m pretty sure there was not yet a shot-clock in basketball when I began coaching, let alone in lacrosse. Over nearly two decades on the sidelines, as the holiday season approached, an inevitable reality hit that somebody found a way to get me a present in an attempt to enhance my coaching acumen. Finally, a few years ago, somebody realized that all I needed was a good pair of glasses, but that is a topic for another article.

But to answer the question as to what my favorite Christmas Coaching gift has ever been is a tough one. So, in order to get my mind going, I asked a few coaching friends for some suggestions, and the results were interesting to say the least:

  • A couple of friends suggested fancy Under Armour or Nike apparel that I probably received at some point. Seriously, people, have you ever seen me before? I belong in fancy Nike or Under Armour gear the same way that Donald Trump belongs in Arby’s for a State Dinner. As an aside, the new Arby’s Fire Roasted Philly is a revelation … but that is a subject matter for another time. The truth is that unless Nike or Under Armour creates coaching apparel that covers a human completely from head-to-toe without any hope of revealing even a millimeter of what lies underneath, nobody is buying it for me.
  • Shoes? Santa must have brought me some fancy coaching footwear at some point, right? There is no factory in the North Pole capable of producing the kind of product to cover the size 13, double-wide skis that reside at the bottom of my legs. My feet are so big that I fear they will develop elbows one day, so nobody – and I mean nobody – would ever endeavor to buy me fancy shoes for Christmas.
  • A new stick, right? I used the same DeBeer Apex for nearly the entirety of my coaching career until it broke last winter… sadly, after Christmas. That stick was bought pretty much when DeBeer entered the lacrosse world, and literally outlived the company. As I was famous for my Apex, nobody thought to buy me a new stick. As I approach my 40th birthday in February, the only good reason for a new stick would be for use as a cane.

Alas, after much consideration, I finally figured out what I could share with you as being – no hyperbole intended – the greatest gift I have ever received during my coaching career. A gift so important to my life on the sidelines that Santa himself could not do one better. An ornament of perfection that could possibly be reproduced, but never replaced. A present that was no lacrosse accessory, but instead a fundamental staple to my life as a coach that proved to be as irreplaceable as the clip-board, ball bucket, and video camera.

Of course, I am talking about my Fox 40 Classic.

Now, I know what you are thinking: “He must get a new whistle every few years, and probably has had a dozen of these during his career.” Think again, people, and go back to polling Presidential Elections. My Fox 40 – the only one I have ever known – has been with me through nearly every step of my coaching career… and it started as a Christmas gift.

I remember the day well. It was late in the fall of 1999. I never point out specific schools where I have coached, but let’s just say this school name rhymes with ‘Manhattanville College.’ We had an early morning practice… in the driving rain and cold. I would not say she was an ex-girlfriend – instead I’ll call her a previous romantic interest – decided to attend practice that day as her seeing-eye dog was in the perfect frame of mind to be outdoors in such slop. For hours she watched me struggle and battle. She saw me go to war. She observed me in a manner that few have ever seen me.

For that day, the competition was not on the field. It was between my lips. A low attacker ran the wrong play the wrong way, and I pursed my lips for a mighty toot of the standard Acme Thunderer that I only purchased because it came with a lanyard already attached. Out came a noise that could only be described as the sound a fish would make while flopping out of water… if said fish were capable of noise.

A few minutes later, a midfielder attempted to go behind the back when shooting overhand and forwards had been a challenge of Everest proportions. I reared back my diaphragm, bellowed into ball of brass sound-making, and the little magic ball in the middle failed to execute, causing a noise that sounded more like the hiss of a snake than the bellow of a whistle.

During such typhoon-like conditions, the rain, wind, and cold rendered my efforts to blow a whistle as a figure of authority akin to Shaquille O’Neal shooting free throws:

  • Start of a drill whistle… CLANG.
  • Start of a spring whistle… BOINK.
  • ‘Stop talking and listen to me’ whistle… DOINK.
  • ‘Bring it in’ whistle… BANG.

Let’s put it this way: Thank goodness I was not a lifeguard on duty.

At the end of practice, as my previous significant other gazed at me in wonderment if the dare she had approved in order to agree to a relationship with me had been sufficiently covered, her face suddenly lit up like the very Christmas tree that is the basis for this article. Not because my face was covered, but because she had finally figured out the perfect Christmas gift for me.

After all, we were in an awkward place in our relationship that many couples reach this time of year. Have we been together long enough to exchange presents? Is it too soon? After all, we had only been seeing each other for like three years, so perhaps we needed to wait to take such a step. But, she made her decision. A new and better whistle was on its way. The days of weather-touched tooting were coming to an end, and a new era within my coaching career was about to begin. As Hanukkah came early that year, by Christmas Day, the greatest gift a coach would ever receive was hanging around my neck. My Fox 40 Classic had arrived. And life has never been the same.

I have been using the same Fox 40 Classic since that day. While laser surgery, and subsequent vision enhancement allowed my previous significant other to move on with her life, the impact of her gift remains a powerful addition to my life and livelihood. My Fox 40 Classic and I have coached together during some intense practices at the college level for two different programs, a litany of big moments at the High School level at multiple stops, and were partners as we helped launch a travel program during the first days of its existence. It comes with me to every practice at the travel program we currently run together, and to camps and clinics around the country. In our third season together at Pace University, I do not take the field – except on game-days – without my Fox 40 around my neck, and close to my heart.

If there was a Fox 39 that was used in the past, I would not know. If a Fox 41 exists, I do not care. This small piece of plastic – or something that feels like plastic – is magic in my hands and on my lips. It is the peanut butter to my jelly, or as we approach Christmas, it is the star to top my coaching tree. Without my Fox 40, I am nothing. Without me, my Fox 40 is nothing.

We are perfect together.

Why am I so blissful for an inanimate whistle? The reasons are almost countless:

  • There is no bigger authority on the lacrosse field. When my Fox 40 Classic blows, everybody stands still, quiets down, and pays attention. Depending on what I ask for, my team either runs towards me quickly, or runs away from me even faster. When I blow it, my team may either stop what they are doing, start what they are doing, or initiate something new. It accomplishes that which the sound of my voice will never be able to do.
  • Sometimes I do not even have to blow my Fox 40 Classic for it to do its job. Putting it into my mouth can often be just enough to get my team to do what is expected.
  • My Fox 40 Classic does not have parents. I will not elaborate. Feel free to use this space to draw your own conclusions.
  • There is nothing on a lacrosse field louder than my Fox 40. It can be heard no matter what else is happening. I challenge you non-Fox 40 people to say the same thing about your wimpy whistle!
  • It does not talk back, ask questions, complain, roll its eyes (it does not have eyes), run the wrong play, get lazy, make mistakes, get tired, ask for a water or bathroom break, or fail to pay attention. It never questions my judgment. It is the manifestation of loyalty. If my players were more like my Fox 40 Classic… once again I will not elaborate. However, if you care to complete the sentence, I can be reached at mspinner@pace.edu.
  • 100% of the time, my Fox 40 Classic works every time. In the rain, the snow, the cold, the heat, the darkness of night (or early morning), and regardless of wind, when I blow into my Fox 40 Classic, it comes through. Some people think that there is nothing more consistent than death and taxes. I proudly submit my Fox 40 Classic. I’m pretty sure the slogan regarding Letter Carriers and their dedication was initially created for the Fox 40 Classic.
  • Three words for you: No. Moving. Parts. To those of you who rely on the classic ‘ball in the whistle’ model, how many times have you been unable to be heard at all during the winter, as I experienced during the moment of quiet shame that first brought the Fox 40 Classic into my life? Or, that awful moment when the harder you blow, the quieter the toot? For me, the consistency of my Fox 40 Classic is something for which I could not be more thankful.
  • My Fox 40 Classic can be heard under water. So, if my practice is ever interrupted by a tidal wave, we will not skip a beat.
  • My Fox 40 Classic provides me a kinship like no other with referees. That’s right, people. Their whistle of choice? The Fox 40 Classic!
  • Finally, my Fox 40 does not judge me. It accepts me during the best and worst practices, and works just as hard for me regardless of the day or situation. It is there for me when the sound of my voice simply is not enough. It has never let me down. My Fox 40 Classic has come with me all around the world, literally, as my coaching career has developed. It is my right hand, or my left hand, depending on which way the lanyard sways. I once lost my Fox 40 Classic for several days, and it was tragic. Thankfully, it turned out that it was around my neck the entire time, and I had simply failed to change shirts for quite a while. Once I realized this, she (or he) sprung right back into action, and we were one… again.

On a personal note, I hope everybody enjoyed reading this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it, and maybe – just maybe – you received a laugh or two as my Christmas (or Hanukkah) gift to you. We live in some very uncertain times, and the year ahead may bring with it even more uncertainty until the world around us can finally calm down and catch its breath. No matter what is happening ‘out there’ take a moment during the holiday season to laugh at the little things, forget the big things, and appreciate every gift Santa brings your way. Happy Holidays, and I look forward to seeing you all on the sidelines in 2017!

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