Old Coaches Never Die

As I was growing up, this week meant the Indianapolis 500 car race and cemetery visits. My mother had passed away when I was eight years old; much of my childhood was spent on the farm with my maternal grandparents. My mother had been their only child.

Memorial Day back in the 1950’s was called Decoration Day. My grandparents took it very serious. Early on Memorial Day morning, my grandmother would be in the garden cutting iris and peonies stems to put at the grave sites of our relatives.

My grandfather would gather the right number of glass jars and fill a cooler with water. He would pack his car with the jars, water, flowers and a small shovel. For my brother and I, it was great fun. Each cemetery meant a new adventure, looking for the oldest stones and running wild in the cemetery.

As my grandparents aged, they drilled me with a guilt I still feel today. I can still see my grandfather, with tears in his eyes, swearing that his grandkids would someday forget their grandparents. Decoration Day would come and go with no flowers on their graves.

That guilt had no effect on my younger brother, Roger, but I still see those teary eyes from a face that never cried. Roger brags he doesn’t suffer from the same guilt that forces me back to Clatonia, Nebraska every Memorial Day to put flowers on my grandparents’ graves.

Thinking back to my career in sports, I remember those that have passed. I wrote a book about one of the most significant athletes I coached, Brenda Florian. Brenda inspired a high school team to a state championship before dying of cancer.

My summer high school baseball coach was Ernie Boska. Ernie wasn’t a great coach, but he was a great person with a passion for sports. Summer baseball is all he coached, but he loved to talk about all the high school athletics during his math classes or just in personal conversation.

Ernie helped bring a semi pro baseball tournament to Wilber in the summer of 1969. I was home from my first year of college. I loved that tournament and all the games. Very good semi pro teams were seeded to play from sun up to well past midnight.

Ernie was the announcer for every game. I’ll was sitting in the bleachers looking up at a full moon on July 20th when Ernie announced to the small crowd and two teams playing that Neil Armstrong had just been the first human to step on the moon.

Three years later, Ernie Bouska missed several days of school with the flu. The local doctor had sent him home thinking the flu would run its course. Ernie’s health continued to decline until an ambulance was called. Sadly, Ernie never made it to the hospital alive.

On this Memorial Day, I want to tell an amazing coaching story of Bob Ihrig. Ihrig coached one year at Clatonia High School in 1958. The mark he made on the community and the destruction he did to his personal health was never fully realized.

Ihrig grew up a sickly kid. When he was 13 years old, he almost died. He had his tonsils removed and his health improved. His health problems were much more serious than infected tonsils. Ihrig had a heart problem.
He was never allowed to play a sport in high school. He worked at the local movie theater instead. With the money he earned, Ihrig bought clothes. He wanted to be the best at something. He was the best dressed teenager in McCook, Nebraska.

His passion for sports was fueled when he met a man by the name of Gillespie at the McCook YMCA. Still unable to play sports, his intense competitive personality led him to be the best ping pong and chess player in McCook.

Ihrig was in line to become the school’s valedictorian. Instead of finishing high school, a couple of boys from McCook jumped on the train to enlist in the army at Omaha. He lied about his heart condition, made it through basic training and was assigned to a post in Japan.

The heart condition flared up and he was discharged from the army. He ended up at Kearney State College and his competitiveness found a place in coaching. After three or four stops at other Nebraska high schools, Ihrig found his way to Clatonia and a very talented bunch of boys. The year before, Clatonia had only lost one game and expectations were very high.

Ihrig was put in charge of starting the school’s first football and track programs. He also was expected to win a state basketball championship. Clatonia’s only other state championship came in 1922.

Not a single person in the community knew any of Ihrig’s health history. The new coach, who doubled as superintendent, was a very tough coach and administrator. Before the 1957 school year could go on summer break, he suggested his athletes run a mile a day in overshoes.
He wasn’t exaggerating on the toughness of that first football season’s preseason practice. If he became irritated, Ihrig would put the team on the county roads for a two mile jog.

During practice, he would wear football pants with thigh pads, but no shoulder pads or helmet. Ihrig would take over at running back if he wanted to test the defense. The defenders hated to tackle him. He was stocky and he pumped his knees high. Often potential tacklers would bounce off, making Ihrig even madder.

His toughness paid off and that first team had a record of 6 – 3, losing the first two games of the season. As basketball season approached, no one questioned that this coach was much tougher than the popular previous coach. That coach was Gene Else, my uncle. Gene stayed a huge supporter of Ihrig despite their difference in personalities.

Ihrig took part in basketball practices like he did on the football field. He hated when a player would stop him. Once, he broke the nose of Bob Gerdes, a back-up post player. He later apologized but no one doubted he would do it again.

Bob Ihrig wasn’t allowed to play a single sport in high school. His health forced him out of military service. Now in Clatonia, he carried his secret of a bad heart, giving everything to the boys of Clatonia High School.

His basketball team didn’t disappoint. After a close call in the county tournament, Clatonia rolled through the season undefeated. They overcame a horrible shooting first half in the state semifinal game. Then they rolled over Red Willow, ironically a school near where he grew up in McCook.

During the track season, Bob Ihrig resigned from Clatonia High School. There were rumors of gambling problems, surmounting financial problems or a vendetta by a school board member. Personally, all Ihrig ever said was he wanted to pursue a higher paying job and hinting he wanted to stay in coaching.

It was all a lie. He had come back from a doctor’s appointment with bad news. The doctor told him to give up coaching or he would die. Ihrig and his family left Clatonia and not a single person knew the real reason he left.

Unable to coach, he took a job with Look Magazine as a fund raiser. The family moved to Minnesota and Ihrig was active in charities, especially one that collected winter clothing for a local reservation.

He just couldn’t stay away from coaching. While coaching a prison baseball team in Minnesota, Ihrig’s heart finally gave out. A doctor actually pronounced him dead, but he survived.

He became a test case for open heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Of 50 people who had the surgery, only two survived any length of time. Ihrig was one of them, living two more years. So sick he couldn’t have visits from his children, Ihrig passed away in 1964. He was only 34 years old.

Many times in athletics, you hear about an athlete that left it all on the court. As a coach, Bob Ihrig did all that and more for his athletes at Clatonia High School.

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