It was just a number and some letters written on a shoe.
But it wasn’t just one shoe, it was on every player’s shoe.
It wasn’t just a number and some letters, it was a message of support.
Monday in a match at Iowa Mennonite School, the Washington High School boys soccer team paid tribute to their coach’s father, who passed away last Thursday, by writing “4 RUSS” on their cleats.
Head coach Sally Hart’s father, Russell Hayes, died after a short illness. He had just had his 58th birthday four days previous.
The first line of his obituary reads, “He may not have worn a cape or a symbol on his chest, or had a batterang on his hip, or commanded the Galactica, but the world lost one of the good guys. Family was always first for Russ. Always.”
His daughter has brought the feeling of family to the Demons soccer team.
“She is someone to us, not just our coach,” Demons player Gabe Zimmer said. “She is definitely more than a coach to us. It sucks that our season is not the greatest right now, but it is about more than a game. We are playing a sport to have fun. It is a game. But we are basically a family.”
It is not the length of a life but the depth of it. Sports bring people together in a community.
“Russ set the example of how to be the best dad ever. He was the proud father of Sally and Maya, spending countless hours coaching their softball and basketball teams,” the obituary said.
“Dad was my coach for many of my sister and I’s basketball and softball teams growing up,” Hart said. “He is my role model.”
“Since he coached her and she coaches us, it just made us know we should do something to make her feel better,” Zimmer said.
Death is not the opposite of life, it is a part of it.
“I could never imagine losing one of my parents, at any age,” said Pascual Mendoza, who helped coordinate the idea of writing on the shoes along with teammates Noah Suchan and Zacary Stout. “I just wanted to let her know that we were here for her, just like she is here for us. She is the one who is spending her time teaching us how to play soccer.”
At the beginning of the season, Hart shared the fact that her father was diagnosed, the assistant coach Kevin Rohr told the team Friday that he had passed.
“So that’s when we all started thinking that we should do something for her because of the respect we have for her and her family,” Zimmer said. “We kept it a secret just to surprise her and let her know how much we care about her.”
Hart did not know her players had written anything on their cleats.
“It was a meaningful surprise for Coach Hart,” Rohr said. “It meant a lot to her.”
“It caught me off guard,” Hart said. “They didn’t tell me they were going to do it. And nobody pointed it out. They just did it and I saw it during warm ups. I spotted it on Cole Anderson’s first, and then I looked around and realized they all had ‘4 Russ’ on their cleats.”
Hart had shared with her players the impact her father had on her life.
“She told us about how close they were, how he went to all of her games, taught her about sports,” Mendoza said. “We just wanted to let her know that we were going to be playing for her dad‘s memory. We thought it would be better as a surprise then to just tell her. Actions speak better than words.”
It is an old cliché but it packs a powerful punch when it is spoken by high school junior, a young man who talked about the way a team showed their appreciation for their coach.
“I am honored to be their coach,” Hart said. “For this group of high school kids to think of me and my family at such a hard time really filled my heart. I was moved.”
“When we all got on the bus she told us thanks for what you wrote on your cleats,” Mendoza said.
The coach and the players spend at least an hour and a half most every day together, sometimes more.
“That brings us closer,” Zimmer said. “We can all trust each other with everything. She does a lot for our team. She is more than a coach, she is also a friend. She wants us to have fun. She wants us to get better. She wants us to work together as a team. She wants us to develop as people and not just as players. She has talked about wanting us to focus on school so that we have a good future.”
Something that family members want for other family members.
“(Dad) was always at my soccer games from high school to college to reffing to coaching,” Hart said. “I miss seeing him in the stands and debriefing together after games. It was almost like Dad was at the game again.”