This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
When Dave Belisle was a senior captain for the varsity hockey team at Mount Saint Charles Academy in Woonsocket, R.I., his team lost in the finals of the state tournament. Belisle’s father, Bill, was the team’s coach, and Dave felt awful, not least because he had muffed an easy scoring opportunity that could have changed the outcome.
After the game, Dave knocked on the door of the head coach’s office. His dad was sitting behind the desk, his eyes brimming with tears.
“Dad, I’m sorry,” Dave said.
“For what?” Bill replied.
Bill shook his head. “I’m not crying because we lost,” he said. “I’m crying because I’m not going to get to coach you again.”
Dave never forgot that lesson, just like he never forgot the ones his father taught him when he was Dave’s baseball coach in their hometown of Manville. After every game, win or lose, Bill would take his players into the outfield, where he could deliver a pep talk out of their parents’ earshot. “He would break down the games but he never embarrassed anybody. There was no finger pointing,” Dave says. “Whether we won or lost, he was always one to make us feel good leaving the field.”
So in August, when Dave’s own team, the Cumberland Americans, was eliminated from the Little League World Series by a heartbreaking one-run loss, he knew exactly what to do. He brought his players into right field of Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., and tried to make them feel good. “Everybody heads up high,” he said in his thick New England accent as his players sniffled around him. “There’s no disappointment in your effort in the whole tournament and the whole season. It’s been an incredible journey. Okay? We fought -- look at the score, 8 to 7, 12 to 10 in hits. It came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us.”
He continued: “The only reason why I’ll probably end up shedding a tear is because this is the last time I’m gonna end up coaching you guys. But I’m gonna bring back with me, and the coaching staff is gonna bring back with me, and you guys are gonna bring back something that no other team can provide but you guys, and that’s pride. Okay? Pride. You’re going to take that for the rest of your life, what you provided for a town in Cumberland. You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping, you had New England jumping, you had ESPN jumping. Okay? Because you want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way.” The speech concluded with a tearful group hug.
It was an intimate moment, meant to be shared with a small group, but Belisle’s words reached a larger audience than he could have ever imagined. He had agreed to wear a microphone for the live ESPN broadcast of his team’s games. (“I know I’m not going to say anything stupid. I just don’t coach that way.”) Unbeknownst to him, the network had aired his postgame pep talk. The video spread rapidly through cyberspace. “The next morning, my kids were waking me up saying, ‘Your speech went viral.’ Believe me, I didn’t know what ‘viral’ meant,” Belisle says. Walking around Williamsport the next day, he was treated like a celebrity. He was invited into ESPN’s broadcast booth, and two days later he did a live interview on the Today Show. As of this week, the various YouTube links to his video have attracted more than a million views.
Belisle could not have predicted the reaction any more than he could have manufactured the moment. He is my choice for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, not just for what he said but for what he represents. At a time when American sports has been overtaken by incendiary headlines and abhorrent behavior, Belisle reminded us that at its best, sports can still be beautiful and innocent, with players playing and coaches coaching for all the right reasons.
That’s the world in which Belisle grew up. His father is a bona fide youth coaching legend. A former Army drill sergeant who served a tour of duty in the Korean War, Bill coached Dave and his three brothers in hockey and baseball throughout their childhood. He founded the Little League program in Manville, and after a couple of years volunteering as an assistant hockey coach at Mount Saint Charles, his alma mater, he took on the role of head coach beginning in 1975. He has since won 33 state championships, including a mind-boggling 26 in a row. Though Bill is 85, he is coaching at “the Mount,” as it is called, with more than 900 career victories and counting.
Since Bill did not go to college, he was not qualified to teach at the school. His day job was as a diesel mechanic. Even with all those responsibilities, he still found time to serve as a volunteer firefighter. “That’s how that generation lived,” Dave says. “They volunteered. They helped each other with their neighborhoods.”
Following that tradition, Dave began volunteering as his father’s assistant in 1980, shortly after he was cut from the hockey team during his junior year at Providence College. In 1995, Dave, who is now 55, moved his wife and four sons to Cumberland, which is less than ten miles from Manville. Besides working in the sales department at Ammeraal Beltech and serving as his father’s assistant, Dave also coached his sons’ baseball teams. He has coached in Little League’s Major division for nine years. In 2011, Dave took a team that included his son, James, to the Little League World Series. His youngest son, Johnny, plays on Cumberland’s current team, but Dave almost did not coach this season because his wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with colon cancer. She insisted he continue coaching, if only so Johnny, who will turn 13 next January, could enjoy his final season of Little League.
The season was, to borrow Belisle’s words, an incredible journey. Cumberland captured its district championship, then won the Rhode Island state title, and finally took the New England title to earn a trip to Williamsport. The games were thrilling, but it was the time spent in between that left the biggest impression on the coach. “Me and the boys basically lived together for three-and-a-half weeks away from their parents. I was like their father,” Belisle says. “They never gave me any trouble at all. They were almost too nice. I’d always say, ‘You guys gotta get a little more aggressive. You’re too nice.’ But the effort was always there. They were always ready to play.”
As any sports parent can attest, that culture is sadly on the wane. “What do I think of youth sports going forward? I don’t like it,” Belisle says. “Everything is so specialized now. It’s all driven by money. You see all these batting cages and indoor facilities. It’s like no one enjoys the moment because they think their kids are gonna play big-time sports. I don’t think parents are allowing their kids just to enjoy the game. They do so much traveling. When do they even have time to play hide-and-seek with their friends?”
In many respects, Little League is the last vestige of that culture. The teams are still formed based on geography, not talent. Belisle, however, is not going to be in that world any longer. He will still coach Johnny in Babe Ruth baseball, which is for older boys, and James will soon be joining the hockey team at Mount Saint Charles. But Dave has not had a real summer vacation in eight years, and he wants to spend more time helping his wife fight cancer. “I’ve got other priorities that need my attention now,” he says.
If Belisle’s Little League coaching career really is over, then it is fitting that he should go out with a loss. His words would have had far less meaning had they been delivered in the wake of a victory. Belisle was right when he said his boys should feel proud of what they had done, but as it turns out, he was right about the rest of us, too.
We like sportsmen.