Tiger. Your first thought? In the world of sports, there is only one. How about Michael? Few are known by just their first name. Pele is another. Tiger Woods achieved his distinction in golf, Michael Jordan in hoops, and Pele in soccer. No need for the last name. We all know.
In and around North Kingstown, we had our own sports legend, known by one name. Just Al. There is a great sadness in and around Skipperville with the passing of town icon Al Southwick.
When our family moved to the North Kingstown, we began to hear Al Southwick’s name in the community. We heard on many occasions he was not only coaching and mentoring today’s children but had done the same for their parents in their early years. I remember being impressed with the show of respect communicated by the adults. Beyond the spirit of admiration, there was an underlying sense of family. It also struck me there was seldom a mention of his last name. Just Al.
When I finally had the opportunity to meet him, he was not at all as I had expected. I had anticipated the head of the town’s sports program being more of an authoritarian, more boisterous, more like the model we see in the movies of the loud coach or administrator, someone needing to prove he was in control. Instead, I was met by a man who was so confident, he had no need to prove a thing. He spoke with a calm demeanor. When we shook hands, I was taken back by how present he was to the moment and the kindness by which he addressed me. He was soft spoken. Not at all as I expected.
As the years went on and our children participated in the town’s various programs, I learned that the softness of his delivery should not have been mistaken for weakness. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Truly confident people have no need to boast or artificially attempt power. This was his method of leadership. He seemed to know when to assert and when to stand back and let the situation play out. When there were moments that required force, his booming voice could be heard at the right time, with the proper message. Just Al.
I always liked and respected how he empowered the town’s high school athletes to teach and mentor the youngsters, whether it be in basketball, softball, field hockey, or whichever the season’s sport. There was so much good that came from the process, for the younger athletes, but also for the high schoolers. It built unity across ages. It taught the older athletes that they were trusted, building an inner confidence. It provided the kids with role models. And it set the stage for their one day taking over the same role and passing skills and respect down to the next group in line. It was, and is, so healthy.
I recall how important it was that every athlete understand each and every fundamental to the sport of the season. During recreation basketball, a new skill was introduced each session and then reinforced the subsequent week. At first, I wondered if it was too much for the younger children to understand and execute. But then I came to understand it was these building blocks that led to the creation of fundamentally sound player. And, with the weekly reinforcement of earlier taught skills, it all came together. Whether the best of athlete or one with far lesser skill, he took great pride in each and every child learning the game thoroughly and properly. Just Al.
My strongest and most cherished memories relate to the soul of the man. We had many forms of communication across different sports and topics, over many years. Without fail, in each and every interaction, he left me with a hard to describe feeling of warmth. His emails were so kind. He made it a point, each and every time, to address me in a friendly manner. His message was always worded with care. The closings always appreciative. When seeing him at any event, he made a point of thoughtfully extending his hand and gentlemanly offering his greetings. No ego. No bravado. No need to establish turf. He was confident in his own skin. And he just made you feel good about yourself.
We live in a society where extraordinary seems to be admired. Who was the funniest? Who was the loudest? Who got the most attention? Who was the toast of the party? At the end of the day, we all need to decide our role models and the characteristics we choose to emulate. If one day I could be remembered as being in some way similar to Al Southwick, I will have been a success. Just Al.