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Champions finish the race

My high school track and field coach John C. Miller was a distance runner in high school and ran track for his college alma mater graduating in 1952 and inducted into his college’s sports hall of fame in 1995. He was a devoted teacher serving 38 years at the same school. He felt he was as much a “life” coach as a track coach. He said, “If you were not teaching morals, you were not teaching at all.”

Miller taught science. My high school was small with only about 350 students total. Everyone had “Mr. Miller” for science. He taught biology, chemistry and physical science to three generations of students before retiring in 1994.

Miller encouraged students to participate in science fairs at the local, regional and state levels and had students attend the State Science Fair each year he taught. Under his tutelage, I represented my school at three State Science Fairs.

I ran Cross Country for Coach Miller in the late 1970s. He began the first cross country team in the school district –– leading my high school to back-to-back state championships in 1969 and 1970 and six runner-up finishes. During Miller’s 25 years as a cross country coach, the program won district titles 21 times.

But Miller was also quite the character. He stood just a little more than 5-foot tall. He always wore dark slacks, crumply white cotton button down shirts, white socks, and black leather dress shoes. All the time.

I remember running and suddenly having Coach Miller running beside me (in dress shoes). “How you feeling, Edminson?” he would ask, keeping stride. “Fine, Coach,” I uttered in reply. “You can do it,” he shouted as he peeled away to check on another of his athletes.

Coach Miller didn’t understand the word quit. Those he coached can still hear him from the sidelines yelling at the top of his voice, “I can, I will, I must!” His passion served as a megaphone carrying this credo through the years. Each of us who recite these words today know that running had very little to do with winning. To Coach Miller, the race was about finishing.

To begin a cross country race, runners gather at the start line. It’s not like a dash where everyone lines up with feet in blocks and knuckles poised on the start line. No, cross country is a sport where teams and individuals begin in a pack. Runners are judged on individual times and teams by a point-scoring method. Strategies can be hinged on a couple of strong runners, but the best team strategy exists when more of one team’s runners finish the race with good times.

Coach Miller taught us that there is strength in numbers. He believed it was important that all the runners on his team finish the race. He taught us to dig deep in ourselves and never stop. He knew the wins might be forgotten over time, but knowing we never quit would carry us into adulthood. He believed that if we trained hard – I can! – and understood that our wills were at times stronger than our brawn –I will! – and ran like champions – I must! – that we would learn the greatest lesson.

Coach Miller is a champion and when a champion leads a team, courage to do our best and finish the race comes easier. Scripture teaches us in

Hebrews 12:1-2 that we run a race spiritually. Jesus is our champion out front, running with us, encouraging us to never quit. We run a race He ran before us and we are encouraged to remain on course. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, we are compelled to finish as He finished.

I can. I will. I must.

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