A high school coach can serve many roles in a young person’s life. The coach can often be a disciplinarian, a father figure, an adviser, an encourager, a teacher and even a friend. He can kick you in the can when you need it and be a deterrent when you think of doing something stupid.
The shame of having to look your coaches in the eye, to disappoint them was often enough to keep us from being in that situation in the first place. Plus, you didn’t want to run until you were bleeding out of your nose if your coach decided to teach you a lesson.
There’s just something about your high school coaches. You might have hated them at times, but chances are you loved them for loving you back, even if you weren’t even aware at the time that was exactly what they were doing.
My high school coach died Wednesday. His name was Mickey Garnto. Many of you may have known him. He was from Kite, and he coached many schools in Middle and south Georgia. He was my coach at Southwood School in Waycross from 1984 through 1987 — my freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
I remember the assembly when Garnto was introduced to us at the end of my eighth-grade year. We had just had two bad years with a coach who was a nightmare, one who ran off half of the upper school (not kidding).
We had not had a baseball team in years at Southwood. That was my sport. In that assembly Garnto said baseball was coming back. When he said it, everyone turned and looked at me, the baseball boy. I might have left and gone somewhere else if he had not said that. I always felt he did it just for me.
Garnto loved baseball, but I soon discovered we had something else in common. Garnto had also been in radio. He had broadcast Friday night high school football games. He had a booming voice and a great personality, and when he found out I loved broadcasting, that was a bond that would never be broken.
Garnto did re-start the baseball program, and I pitched a no-hitter the first game of that first season. I’ll never forget him calling the newspaper and giving the staffers there the headline. I still have that around somewhere. Oh, we lost the game, but I had the no-hitter. We were one step away from being Chico’s Bail Bonds team from the “Bad News Bears” that first year back, and in some ways Garnto was Buttermaker.
When I was on the mound pitching, I would repeatedly hear, “Rare back and rock Shankapotomus.” Garnto had a little Bobby Cox in him, coming up with great nicknames as most coaches do.
His main love was basketball, and he was good at coaching it. I didn’t play basketball. I simply wanted to call the games on the radio. He made that happen for me when I was in 10th grade. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was by Garnto’s side as his stats man.
He was like Frank Layden, a big guy who occasionally sounded as loud as Bobby Knight. A few times I feared for my life as he grabbed my clipboard when he would lose his cool with the players. But I was always there with him. He wanted me there.
In a way, I first learned how to interview coaches by interviewing him. After the games, I’d get quotes from him to write the article for our local paper. He wanted the publicity, but I think he wanted to help me learn how to do my craft. Garnto knew what he was doing. He knew how to help me.
When I first had a sports talk radio show, I was only 16. He occasionally would come in and join me, and on those shows when I wouldn’t have any calls, the phone would light up, and it would be him. “Mickey in Waycross” was, in fact, my coach, calling to help my show, to help me.
It’s funny how the words of someone we look up to stick with us forever. I’ll never forget Garnto saying that I’d make it in this business. “You have the passion, the talent and the knowledge to be successful,” he said. I can see and hear him saying it now, and it meant the world to me. He didn’t have to say it, but he did.
When I wrote a book 12 years ago, I wanted Garnto at the book-signing party. He was there. Whenever I would need him for anything, he was there. Sometimes I would just need to hear his voice, to go back to a simpler time. He would always answer. Garnto was the type who would end each phone call with “Love ya.” He meant it, and I would say it right back.
I’m not the only one who could share this type of story about Mickey Garnto. Probably everyone he coached could say the same things. They’ll read this and say, “That was him.” We all shared him, but he was my coach, and I was mighty lucky to have had him in my life.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at email@example.com.