Few activities put you more in touch with nature than distance running. That’s especially true in cross country, where the training often takes you into the woods and fields where it’s you, the air you breath and the ground you have to cover. Pure. Simple. Profound. That is the force of nature. It compels you to deal with reality in many ways.
In joining the cross country team in St. Charles, circa 1973, my fate collided with another ‘force of nature,’ a coach named Trent Richards. He was the cross country head coach and assistant in track and field at St. Charles High School.
Before I moved to St. Charles as a pending junior in high school, Trent was my baseball coach for the Elburn American Legion team. At the age of thirteen and fourteen, I pitched against kids several years older. Trent saw potential in me that other coaches did not. Following tryouts for the regional All-Star team that would travel to play a tournament in the Chicago suburbs, I overheard him talking to the lead coach that was making selections. “Cudworth isn’t much to look at, but he throws hard,” Trent told him. “And he’s super competitive.”
At the first regional All-Star game, the hard-throwing pitcher the lead coach chose was knocked out of the game in the first inning. I was placed in the game and our team scored several runs in the next few innings as I held the opponents at bay with a mix of pitches; a wide curveball, a slider, a sinker, a screwball, and a fastball.
Our fielders were excellent and the sinker produced a ton of ground balls, so we got people out. Then a big old batter from the other team got hold of a fastball and drove it toward the left field fence. I watched the ball fly through the air as our outfielder Jeff Healy ran to the fence, leaped high in the air, and snagged the fly ball before it went out of the park for a home run. I knew Healy as a long jumper for the Kaneland High School track team. I was grateful for his hops that day.
We ultimately lost the game on a passed ball to our catcher Rick Lay when he called for a slider and I threw him a screwball. He was a lefty catcher and the screwball hit him in the bare hand. Ten years later I saw Rick working at a tool rental place and he recognized me. Holding up his left hand, he showed me the bent finger that I’d given him that day. He laughed, “Thanks a lot. I’ll always remember you!”
I recall that playing baseball for Trent was always a raucous, wild adventure. I have a false front tooth because he was hitting grounders to us one twilight afternoon and he accidentally hit a line drive that struck me in the mouth, knocking out a tooth so that it hung by a bloody thread. That’s kind of how it was with Trent Richards. He drove you to be your best, but his influence could also be sort of chaotic, even damaging in some ways.
His coaching style was similarly dynamic, shall we say. His hoarse voice could be heard across any field in the universe. He could also whistle like a groundhog on steroids. Plus he’d show up on the course at unexpected moments cheering you on as if it were the last step you would ever take on earth. Running for Trent sometimes felt like you were running from Trent.
Yet he also loved the team concept so much that he found ways to bring us together that few other coaches could manage. When we started the cross country season in 1973, there was a unique chemistry going on, because I’d arrived in town to provide a lead runner after Greg Birk graduated, My newfound friend Paul Morlock ditched football to become a cross country runner. We also had Marty VanAcker, a tough runner with black Elvis Costello glasses who was so consistent that he kept me honest every race. Kevin Webster was the wry counterpart of VanAcker, a tall and olive-skinned runner with quiet determination. John (Jack) Brandli was the energetic soul of the team, and Rob Walker brought the camaraderie of Who songs to the locker room showers. Entering the season in 1973, we didn’t know what lay ahead. But it felt like something special was going on.
Trent ran around the school campus as we did our workouts. He carried a stopwatch with him at all times and was even known to toss it at us if we were lagging in workouts. He often sported plaid pants and wore a St. Charles jacket of one kind or another everywhere he went. His presence in the regional cross country scene was well-known to other programs by all these trademarks. He was unafraid to talk up the opposing coach or pass along a competitive word if he felt it might give us some sort of advantage. Trent truly was a force of nature.
A coach’s coach
However, he was also consulted by coaches from other schools, including Batavia’s coach Joe Yagel, whose top runner Tom Burridge had transferred from Hersey high school that year. Trent knew Burridge from summer track racing and other connections, so he helped Yagel guide Burridge through training. As a runner, I understood that Tom stood at a different level than I in terms of ability. That’s why I never objected to Trent offering to help Burridge in any way. Trouble was, Tom’s presence in Batavia raised the quality of that program through his talent and determination. Like I said, Trent’s force of nature approach sometimes had reverse consequences.
That said, Trent challenged me to challenge Tom Burridge whenever we raced. I always got my ass kicked, but it was not in my character to back down either. But looking back, I undestood that in essence, Tom was in a different league than me. That reminds me of the scene in Field of Dreams when the young kid Moonlight Graham gets a chance to bat against the big league pitcher, He almost gets beaned for winking at the tough older pitcher. He retreats for advice from Shoeless Joe Jackson, who tells him not to wink again. “And look for the fastball…” he tells him. “But watch out for in your ear…” Midnight Graham manages to hit a sacrifice fly to right, scoring a run for his team. Some of our lesser triumphs still count for something.
That scene was much like Trent’s approach in all situations. So what if you were outmatched? There was no backing down. No room for compromise. Get out there and get it done if you can. Have fun along the way, but keep the goal in mind. But watch out for “in your ear.”
Rocking and rolling
Thanks to Trent’s presence, those first few days of cross country at St. Charles in 1973 were familiar in some ways and yet a big adjustment from the previous year at Kaneland High School. As a team, we got out there and sweated together in the August heat. When practice was over, we avoided the horrific gauntlet of stinky football players filing into the locker rooms if we happened to arrive at the same time. We’d slip through the locker room doors and strip off our running stuff to gather naked in the showers singing those brilliant 70s rock songs at the top of our lungs.
Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played ’em all
But I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball
We sang tunes by Chicago. Yes, Neil Young, Elton John, David Bowie. That music fueled so many steps…but the irony of our young circumstance was not lost on us. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album made sure of that.
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking Racing around to come up behind you again The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
Trent left us to those devices. He knew that bonds were building that would help drive us to team success. There are few moments in life like these, when disparate dreams come together in one place. Everyone seems to feel the momentum, and special things start to happen. The fall of 1973 cross country season was like that. Good things were coming our way.