Blank, do you remember me?
Al Blankenship, track coach and former guidance counselor at Waverly High School, recalled these words, spoken by a familiar woman around 35 years of age, as she approached Blankenship at his son’s baseball game.
Blankenship’s memory is sharp; he immediately remembered the woman from her high school years. Blankenship replied without hesitation:
“You played softball, catcher, and you lived with your mother and your sister and your dad and grandma.”
The woman affirmed Blankenship’s recollection. However, she remembered something that he had forgotten:
Blankenship had given the woman and her sister 50 dollars for Christmas.
Just days after the baseball game encounter, Blankenship reclined on a cushioned chair in a coffeehouse, tears collecting in his eyes as he spoke about the woman and her family.
“They didn’t have anything,” Blankenship said.
And, for Blankenship, giving the money to the family was simply “the thing to do.”
For more than 40 years, Blankenship has utilized his dual career as a coach and guidance counselor to impact a wide range of students: runners looking to shave a few seconds off of their 800 meter run, quarterbacks desiring state championships, and students--like the woman at the baseball game--walking into Blankenship’s office for life guidance.
Ultimately, akin to the individual nature of guidance counseling, Blankenship’s approach to coaching is person-centered.
However, Blankenship’s enthusiasm for coaching has not always been present. As a football, basketball, and track athlete at Superior High School, Blankenship remembers some of the “crappy” ways in which his teammates treated the coaches.
“I can remember telling my high school coach that I will never teach and be a coach,” Blankenship said, looking back on his unwillingness to put up with the behaviors-- such as drinking and being “jerks”-- displayed by some of his teammates.
But, Blankenship’s deep passion for athletics was more powerful than these small annoyances; he was eventually driven to pursue a coaching career.
Blankenship unofficially launched his career while still in high school, when he coached his best friend, Doug Anderson, in the pole vault and high jump. According to Blankenship, Anderson was “probably the best track athlete in the state of Nebraska,” earning several all-state and all-class honors at Superior High School.
Additionally, Blankenship was neighbors with the head football, basketball, and track coach at Kearney Catholic High School. The coach was not much older than Blankenship himself, and he lacked understanding in various areas of the three sports. Blankenship found enjoyment in assisting his neighbor with aspects such as shot put and discus, as Blankenship formerly competed in these events.
After these early coaching experiences, Blankenship was hooked.
Following his graduation from Kearney State College, Blankenship began coaching and counseling at Waverly High School in 1975. Blankenship assumed the role as head coach for the Vikings’ track and field team and assistant coach for the football team. Despite his deep dedication to both sports, Blankenship’s greatest passion has always been track. To Blankenship, the sport’s appeal stems from its tendency to develop athletes as well-rounded individuals.
“The reason I coached is to help people be better people,” Blankenship said. “Track does that better than most of the other sports.”
Blankenship’s experiences as a guidance counselor fuel his “person coach” mentality. Despite coaching track “like a team sport,” Blankenship emphasizes the individual, striving to help each athlete “be the best they can be.” Simultaneously, Blankenship recognizes that all of the diverse athletes he coaches have diverse goals and expectations.
And witnessing each athlete achieve their goals is a rewarding experience.
“I had a girl who thinks I’m God because she threw 22 feet, 3 inches [in the shot put],” Blankenship said. “She just thought it was the end of the world.”
Before Blankenship’s retirement, the Vikings had won more conference track meets than all of the other schools in their conference combined. However, to Blankenship, the greatest satisfaction was the opportunity to coach wonderful people.
“I didn’t need to have somebody tell me I did a great job,” Blankenship said. “I didn’t need to get coach of the year. I didn’t need to win the state track meet or the state football championship. My rewards came from what I got from the kids. And I think that’s God’s greatest blessing.”
Today, retirement doesn’t stop Blankenship from returning to the Waverly track as a volunteer coach, mainly focusing on shot put and discus, but gladly taking over other events when needed. And when Blankenship steps away from the track, he reads religiously. Blankenship’s reading material ranges from the Bible--which he has read four or five times and has learned something new each time--to newspapers such as the Omaha World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star. In fact, Blankenship confessed he is thrown off when vacationing to places that do not have access to newspapers, as this inconvenience upsets his daily routine.
Blankenship has coached and counseled in hopes of witnessing all students reach their fullest athletic, academic, and social potential. During these decades, Blankenship has built lasting connections; he is regularly reached out to by former students, thanking him for his positive influence on their lives. Though throughout his career, Blankenship has coached students of varying talents, skills, socioeconomics, and life experiences, one truth has remained constant:
“I’ve never had to go to work.”