June 14, 2006

Father's day tribute to Gary Degenhardt

Guest Sports Columnist

Editor's Note: June is always a big month around high schools. There is graduation and the end of the scholastic careers for seniors, plus Father's Day. During previous Junes, Tom Williams has turned over his column to Stephanie Gaitley, Matt Woolley, Jeff Boyd, Allison Rinck, Erik Geisinger, Doug Colman, Allie Moreland, Tracey LeFever and Shaune McLaughlin, among others, to write about their fathers.
This week, former Ocean City High School athlete Anne Marie Degenhardt and her sister, Kay, a former Raider cheerleader, write about their father, Gary, who recently retired as OCHS football coach. Anne graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2002. She is currently working with Reformed University Fellowship, a campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church, at Brown University. Kay graduated from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in 2005 and is currently looking into graduate programs.

Many of you, as Ocean City locals, are familiar with Gary Degenhardt. For the past 30 years, he has faithfully served the Ocean City community as both a physical education teacher and a football coach at Ocean City High School. However, as we approach Father's Day 2006, we would like to take this opportunity to share our perspective on the man who you may know as "Coach Degenhardt" or "Gary D" but whom we have had the privilege of calling "Dad".

As his daughters, there are many things that we love about our dad, but what stands out to us the most is our father s heart to serve others with great humility, energy and love.

Growing up, both of us attended Ocean City High School in addition to our fair share of OCHS football games. As we overheard conversations in the stands during games, or as our classmates commented to us about our dad, we quickly learned that not everyone understood our dad the way that we did. We realized that sometimes people would perceive our father's humility as a sign of weakness. Yet we knew from watching our dad that humility requires a great deal of inner strength and confidence, especially in the context of athletics.

Anyone who has followed Ocean City sports will recall that our father always gave credit to others when things went well and games were won, but when the Raiders went home defeated he took full responsibility. Also, when it came to our father's players, nothing was ever too much trouble. Throughout the course of a season he would serve his players by repeatedly waking up before dawn to take them to the doctor before school. Even as head coach he had no problem picking up kids and taking them to and from the weight room in the summer or to practices during the regular season. He was passionate about instilling in his players a "lineman's mentality," where no player was singled out as a superstar and everyone worked hard together for the good of the team. Although our father is one of the winningest coaches in South Jersey football history, you would never have heard it from him. We, as his daughters, only learned that fact after reading it in the newspaper.

Another characteristic, which comes to mind when thinking about our dad, is his tremendous energy. It is still amazing to us to watch him on a daily basis, and especially on weekends, when he's home from school. He is never still, always on the move, and it should come as no surprise that he requires little sleep each night. During the summer months when we were younger we remember our dad helping our mom with the household chores in the morning and then spending hours in the afternoon playing with us in the ocean or pushing us super high on the swings at the 34th Street playground. We could always count on him to give the best piggyback rides ever (even if we asked over and over again), not to mention the countless trips to doctor's offices, piano lessons, etc. Now that we're older, piggyback rides have given way to help with washing or waxing our cars, moving furniture to a new apartment or frequent phone calls to check in when we're away from home.

Likewise, our father was never afraid to work long hours while he was serving as head football coach. Oftentimes, he would not return home from practice until eight or nine at night, at which time he would proceed to spend at least another hour or two on the phone with various players and their parents. His patience amazed us, as he would talk through various issues, frequently moved to tears over difficult or trying situations. Although we knew he must have been tired from the day, he never seemed to lack the strength to encourage and "lift up" each player as if he were his own son, exhorting them to be respectful and honest young men.

Time and again, we have we have seen that our father is an unusually loving person. Being a man who is never short on words, as many of you know, he has continually told our mother and us that we are loved. With our father, it is always clear where you stand and there is never any doubt in your mind of his intentions. When we were little he would care enough to correct us when we were wrong and now that we are older we can still depend on him to give us honest feedback. But our father is not one to dwell on the negative and, more than anything, we remember his excitement over things we have done well. As his daughters, we feel secure knowing that our dad is someone we can wake up in the middle of the night if we are feeling really sick. He was the one we could count on to stand up for us and protect us when another coach wanted us to compete with an injury. He is constantly telling us to "blame him" when we need to tell someone something they will not like (even if it is a little silly now that we are in our twenties!).

As a coach, he loved his players fiercely and was always more concerned about what kind of a person they were than how they played on the football field. In his own words, he wanted them to be "perfect gentlemen", and would settle for nothing less. He went beyond the ordinary duties and responsibilities of a football coach and involved himself in the messiness of his players lives - caring about their academics, their family situations and, when they were about to graduate, helping many of them get into college. Our dad used to say he wanted his players to be totally committed and loyal to the Ocean City football program. Through his loving and whole-hearted service to his players, he demonstrated how that commitment played out on a daily basis.

As the school year winds down, we in the Degenhardt household are all curious to see what the coming months will bring. This is our father's first summer season away from the weight room and the game that he loves so dearly, as he retired from coaching this past year after much deliberation. Although we know he will miss the game and, more importantly, working with the kids, we are happy to have our father all to ourselves for the first summer we can ever remember.

We love you so much, Dad! Happy Father's Day! Thank you for loving us...you are our hero.

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