“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life — becoming a better person.”
That famous quote from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was posted on social media this week by Chris Doyle, strength and conditioning coach for the University of Iowa football team.
It seemed especially fitting as I reflected on some of my visits with collegiate athletes from Creston just before they graduated last month. It was refreshing to gain some insights into those high achievers before they concluded their competitive athletic careers and took the first steps into the rest of their lives.
Partly because of my own schedule conflicts, and so few competitions within our typical coverage distance, I had never once seen University of Nebraska-Omaha softball player Natalie Mostek, nor Northwest Missouri State University varsity track runners Brandon Phipps and Maria Mostek.
Since I finally got to it so close to their college graduation ceremonies, editor Sarah Scull got on board with my plan to make those reports so much more than just sports stories. They appeared on the front page of the newspaper because what they talked about translated to life lessons, not just athletic exploits.
Natalie and Maria Mostek related their journeys in pursuing pharmacy and a master’s degree in business, respectively. To excel in rigorous academic fields while also carrying a full-time job as a collegiate athlete gets my ultimate respect. While others are cramming and researching papers, they’re on a six-hour bus ride to another competition.
My conversation with Phipps was especially interesting, as he walked from the finish line to the other end of the stadium after the final distance race of his career. The optimism in his voice and carefully laid out plan for success resonated. It took me back to 1980, moving to Atlantic to embark on a newspaper career after graduating from the University of Iowa.
It was easy to see how Phipps, a good all-around athlete in high school with obvious potential as a runner, reshaped his physique and took his talent to a whole new elite level when he concentrated solely on running in college. His laser focus and serious, mature approach to his career was again evident as he moved on from athletic competitor to educational leader.
Phipps had already turned an internship into a full-time career, employed as athletic director at West Nodaway High School in Burlington Junction, Missouri before he obtained his master’s degree. Now he will also be that school’s primary strength and conditioning teacher and a coach on the football staff, as well.
Phipps told me his years in Creston’s program had him well-trained for the culture change he was hoping to instill in that school. It reminded me a lot of some of the things Darrell Frain cited as he left an enormously successful post in Creston to take on some of those new challenges in his native school district, Riverside of Oakland.
“A lot of what we have done at Creston and things I have gathered through my experiences at Northwest are what I am striving to bring to their district,” Phipps said. “Starting with the focus on the coach Birchard special of having pride, work ethic and accountability in all that we do.”
Phipps had worked as an assistant baseball coach under Birchard in Creston during the summers of his college years. He also learned a lot about running a strength and conditioning program from the likes of Casey Tanner and Frain.
I could feel the excitement and determination in his voice as he spoke of getting the smaller West Nodaway district to adopt some of the proven systems and standards of the Creston program he grew up in.
I remember feeling that kind of excitement starting out. When I got my first job in Atlantic, I saw the work of respected veterans around me like Howard Brantz at the Omaha World-Herald, Denny O’Grady at the Carroll Times-Herald and Max Sandeman at the Creston News Advertiser. I knew I had to step up my game to “earn my stripes” among those pros.
One of the first things I did was visit the Des Moines Register to speak with sportswriter Ron Maly. He had no idea who I was, but I had grown up reading his work along with colleagues Buck Turnbull, Chuck Burdick on the preps and columnist Maury White. Later, one of my Fort Dodge friends, Rick Brown, joined that staff for a long, successful career in his own right.
There was something about Maly’s work that struck a cord. His story “ledes” were always unique. They were created in such a way that he was telling a story, not just reporting on a game. I was always intrigued to read more when I began one of his articles.
So, I went to his office at the Register and asked if I could pick his brain on the subject of crafting a story. I figured if I could walk away with one nugget of useful information, I was gaining ground.
Maly respected the fact that I would come to Des Moines and seek out advice from him. Maybe, like in my time with Brandon Phipps last month, he was reminded of his own early days in the business.
I told him I would never try to imitate him, but certainly I could learn from him. He seemed appreciative.
Later in my career, some of those lessons were passed on to younger generations here at the CNA. I recall kind of driving talented young pros like Kyle Wilson and Jake Waddingham crazy by being such a stickler for details in stories, and not rely on generalities or cliches. I said a lot of the work is just staying focused on the grind and being organized. Details matter. Consistency matters.
Of course, they flourished well beyond any abilities I showed at that age. Matt Pfiffner, before moving to Florida eight years ago, was a respected colleague in Osceola for many years before we became partners for a time under union of the Osceola and Creston papers for Shaw Media. Later, Scott Vicker followed the same path, creatively doing his job while also rarely making a mistake. We had a lot of pride in what we did as I wound down my full-time career and he moved into a new position.
Next to that track in Missouri late on a Saturday night in May, Phipps presented himself in that same mold. I have no doubt that small Missouri school district will be in better shape a year from now than before he became its athletic leader.
Basically, the impression I get from these talented young people moving on to the new chapters in their lives is that they are following this guiding principle from Ernest Hemingway:
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man. True nobility is being superior to your former self.”
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