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Jim Ozella: Where did we go wrong?

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Posted: May 29, 2010 11:09 p.m.
Updated: May 30, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Early this past week, I received an e-mail note from a close teaching and coaching friend. The subject of the e-mail - "Jon" - caught my eye.

"Jon stopped by my classroom today during classes, and he did not look good," my friend wrote.

Jon, during his high school days, was the perfect example of looking good in the baseball world. He was a strapping 6-foot 5-inch, 205-pound first baseman and his swing was a picture of beauty.

He could throw with grace, his movements around the first base bag were a picture of professionalism, he could crush the ball with "light-tower" power and he had the air of a future star in the game of baseball.

He played for me his sophomore and junior years in high school, and was later drafted out of high school by one of the local professional teams. His professional career was skyrocketing through the minors until he was traded to another professional team.
After the trade, his professional struggles to be successful began, with his quality numbers now turning the other way toward the negative side and rumors swirling of Jon having "issues."

Not long after the trade and the non-success, I read in the Sports Transactions column that Jon had been released by the professional team.

I was afraid to read the next line on the e-mail from my friend. I was hoping for some quality news on Jon; maybe a new job. The optimistic side of me, the glass-half-full approach to life, was searching the e-mail with hopes of a bright future for Jon.
"I think he is homeless," my friend wrote.

The air rushed out of my chest, my shoulders shrugged with exasperation and I placed my hand on my forehead with the realization that my prediction that I had hoped was false, was absolutely true.

I struggled to respond. Tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered the glory days for Jon in high school. I can still reminisce about the home run at San Luis Obispo which demonstrated his tremendous power by crushing a ball into the wind and over the light towers. An elderly gentleman remarked after the game about "that ball being the longest home run he had ever witnessed."

Where had we gone wrong? The constant motivational messages must have met a deaf ear with Jon. There have been hundreds of success stories, student-athletes moving on to the collegiate level, players becoming doctors - the onetime adolescent now changing diapers with loving partners. Had we not "pumped out the word" to Jon? Where had we missed out on dealing with Jon?

This past weekend, my wife and I stopped at our favorite beachside fish and chips hangout in Ventura as we returned home from Santa Barbara. The timing was impeccable. We had bunched up in traffic in Santa Barbara on the 101, had hit the ramp on Seaward Drive at 5 p.m., parked the car near the beach and walked quickly in the brisk, windy climate to the six-table "hole in the wall." We ordered two plates of fish and chips along with our drinks, and relaxed in our rickety chairs after an eventful day.
Suddenly, a young man entered the side door of the small restaurant. His hood was pulled over his eyes, his hair unmanageable underneath, his jeans were extremely worn and his flip-flops had seen much better days. The young man cautiously moved between the tables to the waitress at the counter.

"Do you have any food? I have no money. I am homeless. I would appreciate if you could help," he whispered, but audible enough to reach my ears.

The waitress nodded approvingly along with mentioning "about a few minutes," and the young man moved back outside to stay out of contact with the "locals" in the pub.

Our fish and chip dinners were brought to the table and my wife and I ate without much conversation. I could not take my eyes off the proceedings as the waitress brought a white plastic bag tightly wrapped around a plate to the young man outside, and he politely thanked her and gingerly moved along to his next destination.

My wife finished her dinner last, and as I waited patiently my thoughts revolved about the preceding few minutes, and the courage I witnessed in the homeless young man. We paid our bill and left a tip, and I nodded approvingly to the waitress a sincere "thank you" for her service and kindness to the young man.

I mentioned to my wife my thoughts as I inserted the key in our car for the return trip home.

"Did you see his courage in asking for that food? How much effort did it take for him to ask for food, and how desperate must he have been," I thought aloud.

The timing seemed to hit me just right again, and I remembered what I had heard earlier that week about Jon.

A stream of emotions engulfed me as I turned the key to start the car, tears again welled up in my eyes and the scene of the young man and my memory of Jon overwhelmed my thoughts on the return trip home.

Where had we gone wrong?

Jim Ozella is a teacher at Hart High school and has been the school's varsity head baseball coach since 2000. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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