Friendship with the Coach across barriers of age and color

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Over a cup of coffee, writer John Fountain said goodbye to an old friend. Tina Johansson/For Sun-Times Media

I sat at a rectangular countertop at the local caffeine watering hole the other afternoon when I spied “Coach” copping his usual cup — black, no cream.

Tapping on my laptop, I was in the flow, relishing one of those “Do Not Disturb” moments when I usually just nod — no offense — to friends and smile.

Coach didn’t take the hint. Or he didn’t care. But it’s cool. It was Coach.


Coach parked in the chair next to me, wearing his beloved New England Patriots cap and speaking in that mellow bass in which, for years now, he has rattled off sports statistics during the morning man chats we once called, “The Roundtable.”

Coach had news… Some good. Some bad. I plucked out my white earplugs.

“I tried to make it up here this morning and catch the guys,” he said, fisting his coffee cup. “…I’m moving. I’m a Hoosier now.”

Huh? What?

Coach explained that he and his bride of 63 years had sold their house and moved to a retirement community in Indiana. That he was just in the area to tie up loose ends.

I get it:  Father Time, age and life inevitably necessitate transitions.

Tall with a sunny disposition, Coach beamed about their new digs. About the good security there that puts an old man’s mind at ease. About the continental breakfasts with coffee galore, the meals, the idea of commiserating with a community of seniors. Although at 86, Coach is a schoolboy compared to some, shall we say, “generationally-seasoned folks” I know.

“Half of it is thinking you’re young. You have to roll with the punches, or whatever the hell you do,” Coach said, laughing.

Maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s his boyish smile, his laid-back manner. The way his eyes dance when he is dispensing a joke followed by another hefty gulp of coffee after delivering a punch line.

Coach talked about the billiards table. About looking forward to poker games. Heck, he might in his new life even become a pool shark and hustle retirees “out of their pensions,” he joked.

Amid our laughter, I also felt a certain sadness over saying farewell to a friend. To the kind of friendship in which another man’s skin color, socioeconomics, politics, quirks or hang-ups are not barriers to mutual respect, human decency and brotherhood.

The kind of kinship that can transpire between all men — even two men 30 years and generations apart. One black, the other white. One whose ancestors landed as passengers on Ellis Island seeking freedom and opportunity, and the other whose ancestors landed as human cargo on the island called American Slavery.

The kind of friendship possible, once we look beyond the frivolity of social aesthetics — around which we often build walls between each other, fences.

Time is a fence from which no man can escape.

As we spoke over time and coffee, Coach shared memories of his Ukrainian father. Of his own days in the Air Force during the Korean War. He even let me in on the truth about his real nickname. It’s not Coach but “Slim”— acquired 70 years ago when he entered the service.

It wasn’t until many years later, while sitting in a south suburban coffee shop, spouting sports stats among a group of elders and whippersnappers, that he got a new handle.

“Somebody called me ‘Coach,’ and I let it ride,” he said with a chuckle.

Finally, Coach arose from his chair, extending his arm for a farewell shake.

“Tell ’em I tried to get here and say ‘goodbye,'” he said.  “Tell ’em to keep moving.”

You too, Coach. … I’ll tell ’em.

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