Sesker Slant: Farewell to my mentor, confidant and best friend

By Craig Sesker For The Predicament

Paul Sesker

My father certainly looked the part of an old school coach.

An old, grainy black-and-white photo from an early 1970s Dows High School yearbook confirms it.

Coach Paul Sesker is shown down on one knee, sporting a white T-shirt, a whistle around his neck, black coaching shorts and a classic crew-cut haircut. He wasn’t smiling – he never did for photos back in those days.

My dad was much more than old school. He was a hard-nosed coach with a no-nonsense approach.

He also was one of the most beloved coaches and teachers to ever walk the halls at Tipton’s middle school and high school. He spent parts of five decades working at the eastern Iowa school in some capacity.

He was from a special breed of coaches. It was never about him – it was always about the athletes. He was a selfless teacher who simply loved being around young people, and seeing them achieve their goals and dreams.

He loved his athletes and cared very deeply for them. If you worked hard, had a good attitude and bought into what he was teaching, he would embrace you no matter if you were the best player on the team or the last kid off the bench.

My dad’s long battle with pancreatic cancer finally ended. He’s gone, but certainly never forgotten. He made it to his 80th birthday celebration on June 3, and he had a blast with family, friends and kids he coached on his milestone day despite not feeling well. He lived a great life, and we’re grateful he doesn’t have to suffer any longer.

My dad impacted thousands of young people as a teacher and coach. His career also had stops in Iowa at Cylinder, Van Meter and Dows before we moved to the “big city” of Tipton in 1975. I remember the warning my dad issued to me and my brothers to be careful because our new home at 709 Meridian Street was right near “two major highways.”

My father coached for nearly half a century, working with the hurdlers on the track team well into his 70s. He coached state champions in numerous boys and girls hurdling events.

I ran the leadoff leg on his shuttle hurdle relay teams in seventh and eighth grade, and we were unbeaten both years.

Affectionately known as “Pauly” by many in the Tipton community he treasured so much, my dad coached a little bit of everything. He was an offensive guru in football, a proponent of the old 6-on-6 brand of girls’ basketball, the hurdling expert in track, and the aggressive, Billy Martin-type coach in baseball.

Whatever sport was in season was the one he was most passionate about.

One sport he didn’t coach was wrestling, but he became a huge fan of the sport with all four of his sons competing. Our family has been involved in wrestling for decades and my dad loved the sport as much as any of us.

My dad wanted nothing but the best for his children, but he could be especially tough on his own family. Playing for my father could be a challenge. And my three brothers – Brian, Kent and Aaron – can certainly attest to that.

There were times growing up when we wondered if he knew our actual names. He would often call us “you, you, you and you,” especially if other kids were present. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to show any favoritism.

Compliments were few and far between growing up. But constructive, and sometimes destructive, criticism was never far away.

I will never forget the fall of 1979. I was the starting quarterback on the eighth-grade football team and my dad was the head coach.

We worked on a screen play for several weeks in practice, and it worked every time. Late in the first half of our last game, my dad sent a play into the huddle for me to call and run. It was the screen pass. And it was being run in a game by our team for the first time.

I took the snap from center, rolled out to the right to draw the defense toward me while my running back and offensive line took off to the left side of the field. The play was designed perfectly.

The only problem was I gunned the pass and it bounced off the fingertips of my running back. The ball fell to the turf for an incompletion.

The entire halftime was spent with my dad chewing my backside. He pressed his face against my facemask and glared directly into my eyes: “I can’t believe you didn’t complete that.”

It didn’t matter that we were beating a larger school, Cedar Rapids Prairie, 24-0 at the half and I had already passed for three touchdowns.

The 45-minute bus ride home was eerily quiet. When we got home, my dad was still upset. He wasn’t talking to anybody.

My mom walked up to me in the kitchen and said, “Did you guys lose the game?” I informed her that we had won the game 32-0. She asked me if I had done something wrong. I said, “Well, I had four touchdown passes.”

At that point, my dad walked into the room. “You should’ve had five,” he snapped, shaking his head.

A couple of months later, in my first wrestling match of the season, I shot in on a sloppy double-leg takedown attempt and was launched to my back with a vicious headlock. I was down 5-0 after the first period and ended up losing the match 7-6.

When I got home that night, my dad was relentless with his criticism. He had never wrestled himself, but he became a student of the sport. I hated my dad that night, I really did. It wasn’t his finest parenting moment, but it certainly lit a fire under me.

I didn’t lose another match that season. I went 38-1 and avenged my one loss with a 6-0 win. I beat that wrestler, who ended up being a state placewinner, two more times in high school.

Following my senior year of high school, my track coach, Dave Vogelgesang, stopped by our house late one night and wanted to talk. I had run on three state championship relays and two state championship teams in high school.

Vog sat down on our porch with me and my dad, and said I should consider running track in college.

When Vog departed, I looked at my dad and he simply said, “He’s right.”

That’s all I needed to hear from the two best coaches I ever had. I became a team captain, conference champion and a member of a handful of record-setting relay teams for Wartburg College. I also was editor of the school newspaper and named outstanding senior in communication arts at a school I fell in love with.

My dad certainly mellowed over the years. He has always been my mentor, but he also became my confidant and my best friend over the years. He offered career and family advice, and was always there with support.

He loved talking sports, and our weekly phone conversations typically lasted an hour or more.

My dad was far from perfect, and he was the first to admit it. But he had a huge heart and loved helping people.

He absolutely adored and cherished his grandchildren. I think he enjoyed playing games with the grandkids even more than they did.

He became very close to my daughter, Hayley, who gave birth to a beautiful baby boy on July 1. It breaks my heart that my dad will never get a chance to meet his great grandson. Hayley loved her grandpa dearly. His gap-toothed grin was always on display when they posed for pictures together.

One thing I will always remember about my dad is that he would do anything for his family. And I mean anything. He was always there. He’s helped me and my brothers through a lot of tough times over the years.

He very rarely articulated his feelings with words. But his actions spoke volumes. He was an incredibly generous man who worked extremely hard to provide for his family.

He did so many generous things that most people never knew about. I remember him giving one of his football players a ride home after practice every day because his mother was working nights and his father had passed away.

He did everything in the summer from painting houses and detassling corn to make extra money. He even tried selling insurance for a brief time as another source of income.

I overheard my parents one time wondering if they could afford to send me and my brothers to a wrestling camp. Money was tight, but they somehow made it happen. They always did.

During a chat last summer, my father said jokingly that “I have two final wishes before I die. That Trump doesn’t become President and the Cubs win the World Series.” Of course, we all knew he wasn’t kidding. And that he wasn’t happy that only one wish came true.

One other wish in recent years was that his favorite football player, Peyton Manning, would win another Super Bowl. That of course happened with the Denver Broncos in early 2016.

I took my dad to an Iowa wrestling practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena a few years ago and he was like a kid in a candy store. He loved meeting Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands, and some of the wrestlers. Terry gave him a Hawkeye wrestling shirt and a bottle of water, and you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face that day. He loved listening to the Iowa dual meets on the radio, even when they were shown on television. He loved the candor and fire that former Hawkeye great Mark Ironside brought to the Iowa broadcasts.

It meant a lot that my latest book – “Wrestle Like A Girl” –

was sitting on the table next to his bed in the hospital. He said he enjoyed reading the chapter on Terry Steiner, a national champion for Iowa and a good friend of mine who I worked closely with at USA Wrestling.

 

I learned so much from my father, but what I really took to heart was this: Work hard, do your best and always be there for your family. Those were simple mantras that he lived by for the last 80 years.

During one of our last conversations, my dad provided me with one last compliment.

“You were a hell of a center fielder – first team all-conference,” said the man who was my high school baseball coach. “And you could run a little bit, too.”

He added one last comment.

“I love you, son,” he said. “I’m really proud of you.”

“I love you, too,” I responded with tears welling in my eyes. “I’m really proud to call you my dad.”