Practice Makes Perfect!

While the football season is heating up this fall and major league baseball is in its October playoffs, basketball is on the minds of many aspiring athletes. Two of our grandsons, Klayton and Danny, have already begun practicing and shooting hoops with their y-ball teams. I spent time getting our home equipment ready this past week. The goal underwent a cursory inspection of the pole, backboard, rim and net. And the balls needed some extra air pumped into them for the Sunday after-lunch practice and play session. There was a lot of enthusiasm and some "trash talk" going on as several grand children and their parents were taking their first shots of the season. I said to Danny on the way home from school this week, "I sure wish Uncle Vernon was still around to put you through a series of ball-handling drills that would have you crying out, 'I'm tired!'" ­čśĆUncle Vernon, Monique's brother, passed away four and half years ago, but we think of him often and what he would have said or done when it comes to sports, and particularly, basketball.

Vernon Eppinette, or "Coach Epp" as his players addressed him, coached 26 years in three high schools and was a five-time Florida Basketball Coach of the Year and a member of the FHSAA Hall of Fame. He led his teams to 724 combined total wins, seven state titles, 10 final fours, and 15 Sweet Sixteen appearances. He was most proud of how his teams were recognized seven consecutive times with FHSAA Sportsmanship Awards. At his funeral, several coaches of the more than 50 he had mentored spoke and said, "Thank you for setting standards that the rest of us tried to reach." One of his stand-out players said of "Coach Epp," He was molding young men into men. Coach made us believe we could do anything."

Monique and I watched Vernon in action during a holiday tournament several years ago. Before the game, he stood stoically under the basket in a dark three-piece business suit as his players warmed up on the floor doing their stretching, sprinting, and sliding exercises. He studied their every move with the utmost focus. Vernon had been a Marine and his pre-game preparation both personally and with the team looked a lot like a military exercise that included strategy, physical readiness, discipline, and execution! Even after retirement, Vernon spent endless hours on the phone mentoring fellow coaches who were studying his style of  coaching and leadership in hopes of replicating his success.

Leaders develop leaders! This requires an investment of time and presence. Communicating core values like hard work, preparation, and sacrifice are modeled. Others caught his passion for the game and commitment to excellence as they saw him lead his teams. But, Vernon did a lot behind the scenes too. He drove the bus for his student athletes. He laundered their uniforms, towels and special socks (and that's another story!). He managed the expectations of the fan base, administration, and the media. In short, he spent hours in self-less service to his student athletes, his school and community.

Serving is hard work. Jesus put the highest value on service and commitment. He called his disciples to "deny self... and take up their crosses and follow him" (Matthew 16:24). Losing oneself in sacrificial service was one value Jesus taught that would be rewarded with finding fulfillment in this life and inheriting eternal life in the next. So many people today want easy success, but there isn't any such thing! We admire those who have distinguished themselves by a record of accomplishments. If we want to be like them, we must pay the price of sacrifice, commitment and hard work. Uncle Vernon knew that after-school drills and daily practices develop the athlete's skills, stamina and potential for success. As the old adage prescribes, "Practice makes perfect!" And it still does!

Mike Keppler, retired pastor,
active churchman and
doting grandparent.


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