At the risk of straining the outer limits of the maximum allowable characters in a headline, I can think of no other way to begin this column than to do what headlines do, which is to foreshadow the content beneath it, in this case, the accomplishments over the past couple of weeks of Perry’s basketball Commodores and their head coach, Matt Tabler.
Lessons learned in life can come in many different ways, and, sadly, sometimes they can come from tragedy, and the lesson Tabler helped his players learn and pass along to all who paid attention has such relevance for all, especially for those in the Perry community, a community of which I was once a part for my first three years as a young teacher and coach following my 1973 graduation from Tabler’s alma mater as well, Miami University.
Despite the loss Thursday night to a much taller opponent, The Wellington School, in Columbus in the Division IV state semifinal game, Perry, in its first trip to Ohio’s final four, had already discovered its own holy grail even before there was an opening jump ball, and most certainly their achievements transcended the 94 feet from baseline to baseline and 50 feet from sideline to sideline of any basketball floor.
As many lessons tend to be, it was not one that was solicited, rather, one thrust upon Tabler and the young men he mentors. The loss of a respected and admired assistant coach, Herb Lane, in a traffic accident on the eve of a regional semifinal game surely wasn’t just a hitch along the tourney trial. Rather, it was a reminder as to the fragility of life and the immutable fact that not one of our tomorrows comes with a guarantee.
And, through that tragedy, it was up to Tabler, somehow, to find a way to allow time for grieving and yet preparing as well for the matters on the basketball court, something that means so much to every player who plays in open gyms all summer and learns the invaluable lessons inherent in team sports, lessons involving teamwork, unity and single-mindedness in achieving a worthy goal over the course of the longest of high school sports seasons.
And, while Tabler was certainly assisted in teaching the lessons forced upon him by the steady senior leadership of players like Jacoby Harvey-Lane, Orion Monford, Plummie Gardner and Kobie Glover, it was, of course, the head coach who, despite his own grief, somehow had to steady the Commodore ship, a vessel crewed by teenagers who, typically, don’t think of death very much in lives so vibrant and so rife with possibilities.
Tabler, who I’ve known since his high-school days at Lima Central Catholic, always drew my interest during my time on the mic as the T-Bird public-address announcer. As Coach Bob Seggerson’s first guard off the bench backing up the state’s Mr. Basketball, Aaron Hutchins, and then as a starter his senior year, he was the essence of grit. If a loose ball was anywhere in the area code, Tabler was skidding across the floor to secure it. Worry about the floor burns later.
Some of that Tabler Bulldog mentality, no doubt, was instilled by Seggerson and some, of course, just may have come by the words and examples of his father, Gary, a Bulldog himself, the Columbus Grove kind, once upon a time, long before he joined his son on the Perry bench as an assistant coach prior to his passing in 2011.
When I think of Tabler, the LCC grad, I can’t help but think of someone so inexorably linked to the school, the diminutive leader that once jauntily strode the halls off Cable Road led by a dog bearing the name of the school’s mascot. It was Father Edward C. Herr’s frequent intonations about the importance of the need to compartmentalize life’s disappointments and sorrows and continue to face life’s challenges and pursue worthy goals that must be met and, of course, the need to show resiliency, when you’ve been punched right in the gut.
Herr’s 1980 retirement and death six years later meant his lessons couldn’t have been directly passed along to Tabler, the ‘95 T-Bird graduate, but those lessons from long ago were, indeed, heard by Tabler’s mom, Vicky, a T-Bird graduate herself, and also by his basketball coach, who heard those priestly lessons not just as a T-Bird student but, later, as a roommate of the Good Monsignor in that little house just north of the school during his first years as a T-Bird teacher and coach.
And, those lessons from long ago may very well have been passed along to Tabler, ones he was able to draw upon amidst the cycles of grieving, then playing or practicing, then grieving and, yet again, reaching for that rack of basketballs sitting beside the tourney trail.
So, with the utmost respect and admiration, here’s to Coach Matt Tabler and also to you, his young Perry Commodores. At a time when your March Madness turned into unutterable March sadness, you did us proud, and, more importantly, you did yourselves proud, so very, very proud.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected]