(Author’s note: Dennis Grace died on July 5, 2013 after a long battle with cancer. Dennis was my soccer coach during my senior year in college. He then served as my mentor during the first five years of my career. Much of what I do today is directly connected to the influence he had on my life. I was honored to be asked to give the eulogy at his funeral. Here it is.)
Over the course of a lifetime a man plays a variety of roles: son, brother, friend, buddy, husband, father.
For me, Dennis Grace played two other very, very important roles in my life. He was my coach and he was my mentor. I learned a great deal from Dennis, and I’m going to share with you four of the lessons I learned from him. My hope is that in sharing these lessons from Dennis’s life that they will be of value to you, and if they are of value to you that this will help to keep Dennis’s legacy alive in some way.
I first met Dennis in August of 1984. I was a senior at Notre Dame, and Dennis had just been named the assistant head soccer coach at Notre Dame. Two weeks later Rich Hunter moved to New Jersey, and Dennis was named the head soccer coach. He brought an unbelievably high degree of creativity, passion, and hard work to the role of head soccer coach.
He and I became very close over the next three months. We used to sit right next to each other during the games. He was the head coach, and I was the third-string goalie who barely ever got into the games. On the long bus rides to Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Kentucky we used to sit right next to each other and we would talk for hours and hours. After I graduated from Notre Dame, he helped me get my first job as the head soccer coach at Tri-State University and my second job as the head soccer coach at DePaul University in Chicago. During the six years that he was the head coach at Notre Dame and I was a senior at Notre Dame and then the five years I was in college coaching, Dennis and I spoke at least once every week, and I went to visit him many, many times at his home to watch him do his work. Now I would like to share the four lessons I learned from him.
The first lesson is to always be willing to mentor another person even if that person is the weakest player on your team. In the four years I played soccer at Notre Dame my total contribution in terms of on the field actual soccer performance during the games was approximately zero. However, Dennis always treated me with total respect. He never held it against me that I was a weak player. He literally invested hundreds of hours over those six years teaching me, developing me, and encouraging me. He taught me everything he knew about soccer, about coaching, about recruiting, and about how to build a great team. I am forever grateful that he did that for me. He saw that I had passion and supported my efforts. So if you ever have an opportunity to mentor and help another person always be willing to do it even if that person is the weakest player on your team or the weakest performer in your organization. You never know the impact you might have on another person’s life.
The second lesson I learned can be summarized in a particular drill that we used to do. Dennis had the players stand outside of the soccer field by one of the corners. Then we had to sprint to midfield and do twenty-five leg lifts. Then we had to run to the next corner and we had to do twenty-five pushups. Then we jogged to the next corner and we did twenty-five sit ups. Then we sprinted to midfield and did twenty-five leg lifts and we had to repeat that pattern over and over again. If a player ever yelled out, “Hey, coach, are we almost done with this one?” Dennis would yell back, “Life’s a battle and then you die.”
That statement “Life’s a battle and then you die” was his mantra. It was his philosophy of coaching and his philosophy of life. I heard that phrase at least two hundred times during my senior season. What he meant by that was if you want to be truly great at anything then you have to be willing to battle all the way to the end of the activity. He wanted us to battle all the way until the end of every drill, every practice, every game and every season.
In his second season he increased the difficulty of the schedule by about 100%. He added every Top 20 team he could put on the schedule. That team had the first ever losing record for a Notre Dame soccer team. But he kept pushing the players to battle all the way to the end of every game even thought they were losing. The next year he made the schedule even more difficult and he kept pushing the players to battle, and that year they won thirteen games. Then the next year he made the schedule even more difficult and he kept pushing the players to battle and they won seventeen games. That team in 1987 also achieved the first of two major dreams for Notre Dame Soccer. They beat Indiana University. The next year he kept pushing the team to battle and they achieved the second major dream for Notre Dame Soccer. They made it into the NCAA Division I soccer tournament. The reason they were able to achieve greatness is because he kept pushing the players to battle all the way to the end of every drill, every practice, every game, and every season.
Four years ago I caught up to Dennis again. He was dealing with stomach cancer. I met with him for two hours in a hospital room in Indianapolis. He kept telling me that he was battling against the cancer. Over the last four years Dennis and I spoke at least once every other month, and every time we talked he told me he was battling against the cancer even though it had spread to his legs. He lived far longer than I ever thought he would because he kept battling all the way up to the very end.
So the lesson for all of us is if we want to be truly great at anything we have to be willing to keep battling all the way to the end of whatever it is that we’re doing.
The third lesson I learned from Dennis is what incredibly hard work really looks like. When I was coaching at Tri-State and at DePaul I used to go to Dennis’s house to watch him work. He had a stack of index cards on his desk about a foot high. On each index card was written the name of a soccer player somewhere in the United States. He also had the player’s home address and phone number. This was before there were cell phones or email or texting or the internet. Also, keep in mind that in those days there were no soccer scholarships at Notre Dame. So Dennis had to search the country for great soccer players who had great grades and who wanted to come to Notre Dame. Then he had to convince them to come to Notre Dame and work hard in the classroom and work even harder on the soccer field and to pay their own way just for the privilege of playing at Notre Dame. So over the course of the year he made hundreds of phone calls and that stack of index cards would be whittled down to about seven or eight great players. And that is how he built the program to the next level.
Then he would take the best players on the team and play one-on-one soccer racquetball in the racquetball courts. Soccer racquetball was a very difficult game, and in the six years he was the head soccer coach he only lost a couple of times. He did all of this for a very low salary.
So the third lesson from Dennis is if we want to be truly great at anything we have to be willing to work incredibly hard.
The fourth lesson I learned from Dennis was the importance of always being yourself. After my senior season had ended, I used to go to Coach Grace’s office just to sit and talk with him. One day he said to me, “Dan, what do you want to do for a living?” My degree was in mechanical engineering, but I said, “I want to do what you do. I want to be a head college soccer coach.” He said, “Well, there is a university about ninety miles away called Tri-State University and they are starting up a brand-new soccer program. I used to coach there, but after I left they shut the program down and now they want to start it back up again. Do you want me to see if I can get you an interview?” I said, “I would love to get an interview.” I got the interview, and I got the job.
The next year he said, “Would you like to work at the Indiana University Soccer Camp?” In those days, IU had four weeks of soccer camp each summer and six hundred grade school and high school soccer players from all over the U.S. would come to Bloomington, Indiana to attend each week, twenty-four hundred players in all each summer. I said, “I would love to work at the IU Soccer Camp.” So Dennis got me an interview with Jerry Yeagley, and I got the job.
I showed up the first day at the IU Soccer Camp in June of 1986 and here was the coaching staff for those six hundred kids: a professional soccer player who had played in the World Cup, current college soccer coaches who were in the Hall of Fame, current high school coaches who were in the Hall of Fame, current college soccer players who were All-American, and me, sat fourth seat from the right end of the bench and barely ever got into a game. I called up Coach Grace and said, “Coach, you didn’t tell me all these famous people were going to be coaching at this camp. How in the world am I supposed to coach alongside all of these people?”
Then Coach Grace gave me the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received. He said, “Dan, if you try to act like a big shot, you’re going to fail miserably. Just let Dan be Dan and you will do just fine.” And that’s the same advice that I want to give to you. Whatever you want to do in your professional life or in your volunteer activities or in your home life, just let you be you with your values and your strengths and your passions and you will do just fine.
Dennis, Coach Grace, Coach, Coachito, thank you for everything you did for me. I will always, always appreciate it very much. I love you very, very much.
So today God bless Dennis Grace.