Some four years ago, it was my privilege to sit down in a Durham restaurant and share a breakfast with Wally Camp, Art Kohs and Jake Salafia and listen to them reminisce about their years in coaching.
From that meeting I generated a story that ran in the Middletown Press. It was billed as a story about three iconic coaches – Camp at Durham/Coginchaug, Salafia at Cromwell, and Kohs at Hale-Ray and Xavier – and sports.
But it was so much more than that. This was a story about life, about caring, about commitment, and in the end, about deep and abiding friendship.
In that story, Camp said that through sports he made friends for life. In fact, while he loved coaching basketball, basketball was a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The best moment of his life, he said, was when he married his wife. But in basketball, he said the best thing was his association with kids.
“They kept me young,” he said.
Wally Camp, the young man, died last week. He was 87.
His accomplishments have been oft-chronicled. They were chronicled when they happened, they have been chronicled in the days since his passing, and they will be forever recorded through the echoing corridors of time, long after you and I have passed on.
I remember the man.
I covered Camp a few times in my 52 years of freelance writing, mostly for the Middletown Press. He was a great coach. He cared deeply about his kids and in postgame interviews he was always honest, always to the point and when his kids did well, he made sure to say so.
Like any good mentor, when they didn’t so well, he said that, too.
Like most of us, he eventually retired. But that was a fiction. He continued to counsel his successor, Todd Salva. He kept his finger on the pulse of life in Durham and Middlefield and he kept in contact with his friends, including iconic coaches like Salafia, Kohs and Pete Shuler of Westbrook girls basketball fame.
When I cover teams, I never know quite how I am perceived. Yeah, I like to be friendly with the coaches I cover, but sometimes one has to write things that are less than flattering. Not that I ever did that with Camp, but a reporter/coach relationship is one that often is kept arm’s length and that’s a good thing.
In that light, fast forward to the spring of 1990. My eldest son Dana waged the final chapter of his battle with leukemia. On April 3, at age 14, he died. On April 6 we celebrated his life with a funeral Mass at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Rocky Hill.
Wally Camp, a coach whom I realized was a friend, was there.
Now, nearly 27 years later, Wally Camp has joined my son and his own late son in what we all hope is a far, far better place. Wally and I shared that horrible bond of losing a child, but we shared much more than that.
We shared a love of sports, sure, but also a love of people, a love of kids, a love of life. We are all mortal, we all die. That doesn’t make accepting death any easier, but it does give us a sense of connection with each other.
For we are nothing without each other. As our lives retreat further and further into isolation because of technological advances that allow us to get things done without interacting with others, it is important, I think, to remember that connections with each other is what makes us human and humane.
It was a privilege to know Wally Camp and if we listen carefully, we can still hear the sound of his heel kicking the bench at the Coginchaug gym when things didn’t go quite right.
The young men who played for him, the parents who entrusted their children to him, the folks of Durham and Middlefield who cheered for him and his teams, all shared something special.
Wally Camp was a great coach. But far more important, Wally Camp was a great man.
He was and will always be forever young.
Jim Bransfield is a longtime contributor to Record-Journal publications. A retired teacher, Bransfield ’s loves include road trips and writing about Connecticut high school sports.