Coaches Balance Duties With Fatherhood
Sat. June 16, 2012 at 11:00 p.m. | By Solange Reyner
Daniel Walker, wrestling coach at Lake Gibson High School, holds his daughter, Alexis,9, in Lakeland last week. (Photo by Scott Wheeler | The Ledger)
By SOLANGE REYNER
LAKELAND | A little, spunky girl with blonde hair and blue eyes scours the small, sweaty-smelling room filled with sweaty boys wrestling on a red mat.
She has the day off from cheerleading practice and is keeping an eye on the athletes, reporting their performance back to her dad, Daniel Walker, Lake Gibson's long-time wrestling coach.
"They're being lazy today," Alexis Walker, 9, tells her dad in a stern tone. "They're not pushing themselves today."
At a recent cheerleading practice, the tide has turned.
Alexis is trying to land a back handspring, and she doesn't hit it hard enough from the start. She lands on her head, and tears start to well in her eyes.
"She looked at me, and I told her to go back and do it again. I told her not to cry. There are days where I do coddle her, but there are days where I tell her she has to push through," Daniel Walker, 35, said.
A great juxtaposition, wrestling and cheerleadinghave become integral parts of Daniel Walker's life and he juggles them because, as a father and a coach, he must.
He didn't always know how to handle both.
"In the last year, he's matured a lot," Daniel's wife, Ashley, said. "He thinks about the whole picture instead of just today."
And although he's a tough cookie with his wrestlers, he's a softie when it comes to his little princess. He's also her biggest supporter at cheerleading events
"This past season, he got a T-shirt made and a hat made," Ashley Fetz-Walker said. "And he cheers like crazy."
Today, the family celebrates Father's Day and coach gets to take a break, gets to drop the whistle.
The story line is similar across Polk County.
At Auburndale, a typical game day for Mike Littles, the girls' softball coach, involves constant movement. He wakes about 6:30 a.m.; takes his 15-year-old son, Garrett, a special-needs child, to school in Lake Alfred; and then jets to work to check on little things.
Littles, 45, owns Littles Construction, so he has some flex time if he needs to duck out for a few hours, a perk that's helpful on game days because Littles is in charge of maintaining the field and preparing it for play, a task he starts about 10 a.m. With the help of his coaching staff, Littles pounds and waters the mound and grooms the infield for nearly four hours.
He tries to finish in time to pick up Garrett again, and if he can't, his daughter, Deanna, will do it.
That will change next year.
Deanna, a recent graduate who played under her dad her entire high school career, will be a freshman in the fall at Polk State College, where she received a full scholarship to play softball.
"She'll have a new routine, and that will be tough," Littles said, "but me and my wife will be able to make it work. We always do."
Jestin Bailey, the newly appointed athletic director at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland, will have to adjust to a new schedule, too.
Since he was hired to replace Dianne Werrick in mid-February, his hours have ballooned at work and have shrunk at home, where two daughters, Aubrey, 2, and Jayde, 3, await his arrival to play "scary monster" and hide-and-seek.
"It's almost like coaching all year-round now," said Bailey, who is also the wrestling coach at Jenkins.
The 32-year-old works from 7 a.m. to noon during the summers, time he would have spent at home in years past, and then runs wrestling practice at 1 p.m. During the year, he's at school later, handling administrative work and wrestling practice.
"I try to leave at around 3 in the summer to pick them up and take them to the park, play with them as much as I can," said Bailey, who admitted that time away from his daughters will get harder as they get older.
"We still try to do a family day and go to the movies on Sunday. We also rock out at McDonalds' play area."
Aubrey and Jayde attend wrestling matches, wearing little Jenkins wrestling shirts adorned in green and gold, but that can get out of hand sometimes.
"When I used to ref, they would try to run on the mat," Bailey said. "We just have to keep them a little more contained."
Fort Meade's football coach, Jemalle Cornelius, also has a tough time keeping a handle on one of his rambunctious kids, 5-year-old Jayden.
Cornelius, 27, has three children: Jayden; Maliyah, 9; and Sahara, who will be 2 in August.
"Jayden is very active, very talkative and asks a lot of questions, nonstop," Cornelius said.
But he sticks to dad like butter to popcorn.
Jayden hangs out on the sidelines during practices and attends summer workouts. He does pushups and dips along with the rest of the football team and runs around the rest of the time.
Cornelius spends time with Jayden outside of practice, too, and coaches his T-ball and flag football team.
Summer is prime time to spend with family because Cornelius, a teacher, has the months off work. During the year, Cornelius' wife, Miranda, who works at Geico, and additional family members help shuffle around other duties: Getting Maliyah to dance class, taking the kids to doctor appointments, watching Sahara during the day.
Oh, and the other stuff.
"My wife handles 100 percent of the cooking in the house, but I do the laundry," Cornelius said. "She still blames me for losing stuff, though."
Coaching a high school team involves long hours and not much pay. The yearly stipend for a football coach is $3,974. For softball, it's $2,426. Wrestling coaches get $2,055.
"But it's rewarding," said Terrence McGriff, the boys' basketball coach at Bartow.
Basketball coaches get $2,055 per year.
McGriff, 33, doesn't have any kids, yet.
His wife, Lisa, who works at State Farm, is due in July with their first, a girl.
"I'm excited," McGriff said. "I'm as ready as I'm going to be. It's going to be an adjustment, and I'm going to have to lean more on the coaches, but I'm going to be home in July so it will give me a couple of months with the baby."
She'll attend games with mom and, in a few years, practices.
"I can't wait until she gets old enough where I can bring her," McGriff said. "I'll have her in one hand and a whistle in the other."