Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

*After hearing about Frosty Westering’s passing this afternoon (April 12, 2013), I had to put my thoughts into words. I am less qualified than any number of thousands of others to talk about Frosty, but as my college friends can attest I could talk about him for hours. This is my disjointed attempt to give just a glimpse into the impact he had on me with just a few brief interactions. Attaway, Frosty!

A lot of the best (and worst, if you ask certain people) parts of my personality and beliefs stem from a passion I gained while in college. And while this probably isn’t the proper thing to say immediately following a man’s passing, I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. I blame Frosty Westering. It’s his fault.

More than five years ago I wrote a column for the Pacific Lutheran University student newspaper about Frosty’s 80th birthday and my embarrassment at what I perceived to be a lack of recognition around campus for such a great man. It is amazing how quickly you can get a meeting with the athletic director and president of a university when you publish particular harsh words about the administration’s treatment of a legend.

And Frosty is a legend. Countless articles relate his achievements on and off the football field far better than I ever could, and I’m including links to a few (but by no means all) of them below. But to sum things up, Frosty spent 32 years as the head football coach of Pacific Lutheran, leading the Lutes to more than 250 wins and four national championships during that stretch. His teams never suffered a losing season, but more importantly they proved that football does not have to be a vicious game based on hate.

Among Frosty’s many mantras, his most famous is probably “Make the Big Time where you are.” It was the title of his first book and his lifelong belief. Rather than jumping at opportunities to coach “bigger” collegiate programs, Frosty remained in rainy Parkland, Wash., until his retirement following the 2003 season.

Unfortunately for me, I did not enroll at PLU until 2006. I never had the opportunity to watch a Frosty-coached team take down a bigger, fiercer rival, all while holding hands and helping opponents up after each play. During my time at PLU the football team had its least successful four-year stretch in several decades – at least according to the scoreboard.

I missed out on Frosty’s historic teams and knew nothing about the Lutes’ history before coming to campus as a student. Despite growing up barely more than an hour north and being a lifelong sports fan, I had no idea that a small-college coach was joining football royalty as one of the few 300-game winners in college football history. And I never knew he was doing it with popsicles, Afterglows and “Attaway!” cheers rather than whistles and threats and grueling punishments for mistakes.

As I learned more and more about Frosty and PLU football, I grew increasingly disappointed at how little non-athletes seemed to know about a man who changed the lives of thousands of Lutes over three decades at the school. I could not handle the travesty of one of the most successful small-college football programs in the nation playing all its home games 10 miles away from campus in a high school stadium. And I let everyone know about my embarrassment in the pages of The Mast.

I read Frosty’s books and had a few brief opportunities to meet him at PLU football games – he was at every home game even as he needed a cane and the elevator to reach his seat atop the Sparks Stadium steps. And like everyone else who has been blessed to spend at least five minutes with the man, I am a better human being because of those fleeting interactions.

So I blame Frosty for many things in my life. I blame him for my desire to stay at a small school rather than pursue a “big time” job at a Division I university. I blame him for my recognition that the journey is more important than the destination. And I absolutely blame him for my unwavering passion for athletics and the belief that few experiences can more effectively shape hearts and souls than the brotherhood forged on the field of play – and I never played a competitive team sport.

Frosty built a culture of love at PLU. This culture changed the lives of thousands and even saved the lives of many. One such example was Nelly, the longtime volunteer football assistant who suffered from the rare disease Arthrogryposis and nearly committed suicide as a PLU student before meeting one of the Lute football players. That interaction brought him to a game, and then to an Afterglow – the session after every game where players, coaches, family and fans gather together to praise each other regardless of the final score of the contest.

Nellie spent more than 20 years as a PLU assistant, working with freshmen on the team to share the love and fellowship he experienced in his greatest time of need. Permanently confined to a wheelchair all his life due to his disease, Nellie spoke of his desire to someday be able to hug people. His two dreams were to return the hugs everyone gave him – all of his joints below the neck were locked – and to one day step onto the gridiron for his chance to play football.

Nellie outlasted doctors’ predictions for his lifespan by decades before finally passing away in 2009 at the age of 44. More than 1,000 people assembled to celebrate Nellie’s life worth living, with former players, the PLU president and Frosty speaking at a podium next to Nellie’s empty wheelchair. Frosty ended his speech by pulling out a PLU jersey with the name “NELLIE” above the numbers, set it on the wheelchair and said, “Nellie, you’re in the game.”

Three years later, I sat in my office as the sports information director at Southern Oregon University, a job that never would have been possible for me without my experience at PLU and my interactions with Frosty. First I heard the sad new of the passing of one of the greatest athletes and coaches in PLU history, Marv Harshman, who is a college basketball Hall of Famer after winning more than 600 games as a coach at PLU, Washington State and the University of Washington.

A few hours after that I heard the words that I long knew would be coming eventually: at 85 years of age, Frosty Westering was gone.

I feel bad that I never had a chance to meet Coach Harshman and therefore cannot properly reflect on his death. But Frosty is a different story. His son, current PLU head coach Scott Westering (or Rudolph Westerdog, as I temporarily got some of his coaches and players to call him) offered exactly the words Frosty would want to hear. He said that the family is at peace in the knowledge that Frosty’s journey has come to an end and he can go to be with God. They rejoice in his life.

Pacific Lutheran’s campus motto, borrowed from a Mary Oliver poem, asks the question, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” Frosty embodied that motto in everything he did, long before the school even imagined using those words to challenge its students. And since sports always come down to wins and losses, Frosty’s dominant record will always be present to give credence to his words and style. But those wins never defined him

“A championship, in the world, gives you authenticity that you did it,” Frosty said. “But that really doesn’t say anything until you ask, ‘What was the trip like?’ The trip was the greatest thing in life whether we won or lost.”

For the rest of my life I will seek to focus on the trip rather than the destination. For that I can blame Frosty. And today I take solace in the trust that not only is Nellie finally playing football, but Coach Frosty is out on the field with him. That’s an image that will always bring a smile to my face.

And maybe someday they’ll be able to look down and see the Lutes kick off a home game at Frosty Westering Field on the PLU campus. In true PLU fashion, they’ll hold hands, smile and help opponents up after each play. And following the game they’ll have the Afterglow, where they’ll look up to the sky and offer the greatest Attaway cheer ever heard.

Hey Frosty! Go Frosty! Attaway! Attaway!


2 thoughts on “The greatest coach I’ve ever known

  1. Fantastic reflection Tyler! Thank you!

    1. Cindy says:

      Tyler, this was amazing. I sent it on to our head football coach who played for frosty on one of his championship teams!

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