Saturday, February 24, 2018

Before they reach the papers

 I am not a reader of the death announcements. It’s no superstitious habit. But like most people I suppose, those pages remind me of a sad reality of this present life that touches all of us from time to time. 

On the odd occasion when my eyes do land there however, and I glance at the pictures of the deceased and read the notations of their loved ones, it is a reminder that everybody is important to somebody. No death is insignificant.

However, it is also true that some people’s passing means more to a larger group of people than others. The local sporting fraternity has had much cause for pause in recent weeks.

First there was the death of the country’s first Olympic medallist, Rodney Wilkes, and then in less than 24 hours nearly two weeks ago, young cricketer Tevin Robertson and former cycling sprint champion Clinton Grant lost their lives on the road. And just last week, the country’s pioneer Olympic sailor, Rawle Barrow was laid to rest. 

Barrow’s death escaped me completely until after the fact. But like Wilkes in weightlifting, he excelled in a sport that does not have national popularity. Barrow won bronze in 1959 as a member of the only West Indian Federation team that competed at the Pan American Games in Chicago. He competed in the Flying Dutchman class. He went on to sail at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And in 1962 and 1966, Barrow won gold at the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games in Jamaica and Puerto Rico respectively. 

Those are plain, dry statistics, archival material that cannot bring to life by themselves the man himself, not in the way his wife Merilee,  his four children, eight grandchildren and colleagues in sailing through the decades could. But here was a predecessor to Andrew Lewis who set a standard. Here was a man who built is own boat early in his career, so he was a craftsman as well as a competitor. Think about what he could teach a youngster about being patient, paying attention to detail, having courage and staying focused.

Clinton Grant, so sadly, did not get the chance to build up a lifetime of experience as Mr Barrow. And in the world of local cycling, he could not claim to be a pioneer. But Clinton excelled in his own way. Compact and distinguished by the sprinter’s thighs, he was a national match sprint champ three times in the 1990s in the period when “Geronimo” Gene Samuel was exiting the competitive scene, and twice he picked up CAC bronze. 

Having covered much of his career, his death carried more personal meaning. I remember nights at Arima Velodrome covering his battles with Stephen Alfred, Michael Phillips, Azikiwe and Ako Kellar and Mario Joseph, his parents and brother ever-present supporters, taking the spills and enjoying the thrills along with him. Clinton himself was a passionate fellow, someone who really seemed to love his sport. I suppose that is why up until his death he was still involved, through coaching.

Speaking of coaching, news of another passing reached me yesterday. 

Unless you were a follower of local football in the 1960s, or a St Benedict’s College old boy, the name Auguste Wooter may sound foreign. Indeed, he was from foreign, Suriname to be exact. But he was a most influential figure in the game in Trinidad at that time. 

Hired by principal Dom Basil Matthews to coach St Benedict’s, Wooter made them arguably the country’s most famous schoolboy team, one that spawned local legends like Warren Archibald, Jan Steadman, Wilfred Cave and Leroy De Leon.

Matthews, a revolutionary of sorts himself, introduced foreign coaching to the schools scene. The ex-Suriname international Wooter was recruited to work with the team around 1964. 

In a country where coaching was still left to amateurs, this was a significant step, that yielded almost immediate results.

“The difference was the coaching,” Steadman told me several years ago.

“There was no big difference in the football as far as the ability and the motivation. But Wooter was the guy who brought the thinking ability and the know-how about the game. He was able to mould players, to make you a better player. We were transferring what we had learned from Wooter onto the national team.”

De Leon, who played the 1966 season under Wooter has a similar recollection.

“He was very instrumental in teaching us the finer things,” he told me. “We were already ball-players, he didn’t have to work on that. He started showing us how to bend the ball, why to bend it, the finer things in football that we hadn’t been taught....We were just doing things without knowing why, but he taught us why; why are you passing to Archie and not Cave. He just gave you things to think about.”

The former midfield maestro also spoke of how Wooter’s influence went beyond the pitch.

 “He taught us how to handle ourselves off the field. We had little coaching in that respect in terms of somebody coming to mentor. He was like a father, a mother, he was very, very instrumental in changing the dynamics of Benedict’s...He taught us unity. We used to stay together, eat together at school. If we had a game on Saturday, we stayed together at the commons at St Benedict’s ground. That was our home away from home on Friday. Everything was team. I used to be a ball hog, but he changed all that.”

Trinidad and Tobago football has in part been built upon the legacy left by Auguste Wooter and his like. Similarly, in their own ways Wilkes, Barrow and Grant made their contributions.

The challenge for the society however, is how to keep the contributions of past exemplars alive. One sure way is to keep those still alive involved, so that they can pass on knowledge and life experience on which a price cannot be put. Why for instance, couldn’t some of the Hall of Famers not be part of a nationwide mentoring programme where they interact with youngsters in general, not necessarily in the disciplines in which they competed. 

The qualities that made them successful are what today’s hopefuls need to have also, and learn how to develop. 

It will be good that the living heroes get a chance to do some real teaching before they become confined to print.