By Chapin Jewell
Sometimes the strangest, most interesting things happen to me, mostly by chance. One could argue that my busy schedule working three jobs, one of which, this one, means traveling on occasion to seemingly “every hill and holler” in the Mountain State.
Despite my exposure to a wide array of colorful people and places, it’s still fate, I feel, that many of the interesting encounters of my life can be attributed to.
My wife Jenna and I began dating in the fall of 1994. I was newly enrolled as a freshman at Frostburg State University and Jenna was beginning her senior year at Fort Hill. Our courtship carried on through both of our undergraduate careers at Frostburg State, I proposed to her in 1999 and we were married on June 3, 2000.
That’s where the story, well actually just this particular story, takes an interesting turn. Later in the month of June, we were gifted a honeymoon trip to Bermuda by her father and step-mother. Let me be a little clearer. They already had a trip to Bermuda planned and, on a whim, a very generous whim, decided to take us along as part of a wedding present.
Now, there aren’t many people that can say excitedly that they spent their honeymoon with their parents, or in my case, my in-laws, but a trip to Bermuda is a trip to Bermuda. Quite honestly, in retrospect, I have to admit that we had a wonderful time and it remains my, perhaps our, most cherished time spent with what is now my deceased father and mother in law.
So what does Lou Holtz have to do with all this you’re probably wondering? No, I didn’t need a pep talk from the famous coach turned orator and inspirational speaker to make it through my honeymoon. The trip didn’t require diagrams and drawings on a chalkboard or a play book either. But rather, it was a chance encounter with the great Lou Holtz at an airport en route to Bermuda that made a bit of an impact on my life.
As Sophia from the Golden Girls often said, “picture it, Sicily, 19-fill in the blank.” Except that in this instance, it’s “picture it, Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport, June, 2000.”
Our flight to Bermuda was really two flights, one from Dulles to Charlotte, and then the second wing from Charlotte to Bermuda. Of course, there was a couple hour layover in Charlotte and we’re sitting there just killing time, doing nothing but people watching really.
It’s at this point something catches my eye. I know that guy. Not a “I know that guy” like I went to school with him or he’s from my hometown, but rather an, oh my goodness, that guy is a celebrity “I know that guy.”
Of course, I’m being dramatic; I definitely and I mean right away knew exactly who that guy was. As if I needed further clarification than simply his very recognizable and famed appearance, the black V-neck, “Carolina Football” sweater was a dead giveaway. You see Holtz, at the time, was the current head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks’ football program.
So, I’m sitting not too far away from Lou Holtz. Lou Holtz, the college football coach extraordinaire and television commentator, Lou Holtz, the guy who led his number one ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad on Jan. 2, 1989, to a 34-21 Fiesta Bowl victory over our West Virginia Mountaineers, denying us our closest and best chance at a national championship.
There’s that thing though, you know, that thing about not going up to celebrities and bugging them for an autograph or interrupting, say, a dinner they’re having with family. But this was different. Lou Holtz, like me, was just sitting there waiting for a connecting flight as well, he had nothing going on and quite frankly looked as bored as I was.
The thing was, however, I wasn’t just interested in getting a quick autograph, I legit wanted to strike up a real conversation with the guy. I mean, we had all that idle time, you know.
So I made my move. A bit out of my comfort zone as sometimes I can be reserved, but this was a golden opportunity the likes of which I thought might never come again. Quite honestly, there was one thing in particular I was just dying to talk to him about, and that was a Lou Holtz quote on “unrealistic expectations” placed on coaches by boosters and fan bases that my dad had referenced many times over.
I walked over, shook his hand, he stood up and right away I could tell he wasn’t bothered at all, especially when I told him that my dad always talked about his quote on expectations. He smiled, and after I muddled my way through what I could remember, he graciously gave me the full quote.
"When I first started at Notre Dame, everybody said they just wanted us to be competitive. That first season in 1986 we went 5-6 and lost five games by a total of 14 points. But people said, 'No, when we said competitive, we meant we want you to win.' Holtz stated. "So the next year we were 8-4 and played in a New Year's Day bowl. But they said, 'No, when we said we want you to win, we meant win them all,’ he explained. "So the next year we did win them all. We went 12-0 and won the national championship. But they said, 'No, you don't understand, we meant we want you to win big.' "
It was a brief, but amazing and for me very poignant exchange. It was also reassurance for me, and this is something I’ve tried to convey to my sons, that even if you’re bashful, or nervous, sometimes amazing things happen if you’re just willing to step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes with the help of fate, the magic happens.
Lou Holtz is such an interesting character, not only for the success he’s achieved but also because his life story is one not unlike many celebrities who come from humble, Mountain State beginnings.
That’s right, Mountain State, a lot of folks don’t realize that Lou Holtz is a West Virginian, born in Follansbee, in Brooke County, the Northern panhandle, in 1937.
Holtz, in his inspirational and motivational speeches, talks of how his humble, poor upbringing actually served him well, teaching life lessons that have served him and those in his charge well.
Born in the cellar of his family’s home, Holtz details that he spent the first seven and a half years of his life sharing a room with his parents and sister, in a home with a kitchen and a half bath. “But we always had plenty to eat,” Holtz has joked. “Anytime I asked for more my dad would say ‘no, you had plenty.”
“Why was I born with a silver spoon in my mouth? Because I was taught by my parents that life’s a matter of making choices. If you get an education, you’re willing to work, and overcome problems and difficulties, in this great country you can amount to something. That’s why I was born with a silver spoon. I was in this country and I was taught personal responsibility for the choices you make,” Holtz has said time and time again.
Lou Holtz most certainly has made a great success of his life. As college football coach, he’s led six separate teams to a bowl game, and that includes nine straight years at the venerable Notre Dame. In addition, he’s been tremendously successful in his role as a television commentator, most notable at ESPN, and as an author and motivational speaker.
I will forever be thankful that fate stepped in 20 years ago next month and allowed our paths to cross. It was a brief conversation, yes, but the experience impacted me, making me more open to taking chances in life.
It’s ironic for me that fate jumped in once again when I was asked in the bleachers of a junior varsity football game at Frankfort about covering a few games as a “stringer” for the News-Tribune.
I took a chance in saying yes and then fate stepped in and suddenly that very occasional “stringer” position has turned into something considerably much more involved, much to my delight.
Fate. If fate arranges for a chance meeting or opportunity, say placing Lou Holtz a few feet away from you at an airport, or a new job opportunity or endeavor presents itself, seize the moment. Fate has a way of knowing what’s best for us.