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Getting a Kick Out of Life: New Book Delivers Solid Advice in Era of Uncertainty

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

On November 14, 2009, Tom Thompson became the oldest football player in NCAA history to score a point.  At the age of 61, the Austin College kicker, who was closer to retirement age than anyone else on the team with the exception of his head coach, converted a point after attempt (PAT) against Trinity University.

Head coach Ronnie Gage had seen a lot of things in more than 40 years of coaching but never before had he witnessed something like this. The player he initially assumed was just another “wacko with an agenda” had just achieved a lifelong dream.  This was no publicity stunt.

While the kick made history, more importantly, a close friendship was forged that season.  The once skeptical coach and the AARP-qualified kicker realized they shared many of the same views on life, leadership, and faith.

Based on their shared experience, Coach Gage and Thompson have co-written a new book (with Alice Hoffman) called The Life Coach: Small-Town Lessons on Faith, Family, and Football.  In it, the duo shares important life advice learned both on and off the field.

I recently spoke to Coach Gage and Thompson about the eternal battle between talent and heart, advice for older people still chasing their dreams, and how God can be the ultimate stabilizer in life.

Coach Gage, first off, what were your initial thoughts when Tom Thompson, not exactly a traditional student athlete at the age of 61, decided he was going to come out for the Austin College (Texas) football team?

Ronnie Gage: What I normally tell people is what would your first thought be? I thought he was crazy to be honest with you. I just wanted to make sure. I could tell he was serious, but I just wanted to make sure there wasn't an agenda hiding in the bushes somewhere. When a guy that old comes in, sits down, and says he wants to play football, what do you expect? It was kind of a shock at first but after we got to talking, we got through it with a little help. We finally figured out that we could make this work.

Tom, knowing the skepticism that Coach Gage had about you, what did you do to convince him that your motivation and aspirations were true and authentic?

Tom Thompson: That's a great question. The thing I was aware of before I even went in to meet with Coach Gage was that he had an impeccable reputation, especially in Texas high school football. You don't accomplish what he did without being a no-nonsense old school coach. So, I realized that there couldn't be any appearance of taking it flippantly. Normally, I don't take things like that flippantly, but I wanted to make sure he knew that. I also wanted to be sure that just because Coach and I were somewhat close in age, I didn't want to use that as a way for me to have a different relationship with him from the rest of the team. I thought in my head and in my heart that I was a college student trying out for a football team. I didn't think about my age, so I acted like I thought any young man would act for his coach. And after a period of time, he realized that I wasn't a phony and I was serious about what I was doing. He saw that if I was hurt in any way, he would find me in the training room. He knew I was trying to fix whatever was broke. When we had conditioning, I conditioned with the team and even though I didn't lift the heavy weights that some of these kids did, I still was in the weight room, working out and trying to get better.

What was the catalyst or your inspiration for writing The Life Coach?

Tom Thompson: When I met Coach Gage, I found that he was more than just a football coach. He had an incredible ability to manage the issues of life. I felt that was something that people needed to hear. This book wasn’t something that I even had in the back of my mind, much less the front of it. But I did sense that as my season on the team went on, and I got to know him better, I knew he had a story that needed to be told. I felt Coach Gage’s story could be something that people would be interested in. I prayed about it for a long time. Then I started cajoling him to do it. If you get to know Coach, you'll find out he's probably one of the most humble individuals walking the planet these days. I know he didn't imagine himself writing a book, but I convinced him over time, much like I did when I first started out trying to be a football player for him at the age of 61. I knew that it could be accomplished. He finally agreed to do it and here we are.

Your book, The Life Coach, is equal parts memoir of Coach Gage’s life and leadership lessons from a lifetime of coaching.  Why the decision to blend these two topical areas together?  Why not just focusing on one topic?

Ronnie Gage: I think they tie together because if you read about my background and where I was coming from, I've been through some ups and downs and some obstacles in my life. The leadership and the mentorship my coaches gave me at a young age led me to be a coach for 42 years. I had a great experience. Growing up as a young man in athletics my coaches were absolutely people I looked up to. Growing up without a dad, they became really important in my life. The direction that athletics has led me has been great. And then to go to work with those same type of men and people that teach you values, the importance of hard work, and the importance of communication, integrity and all the things that go along with that (is priceless).

Tom Thompson: I recognized in Coach how he demonstrated, first of all, self-leadership. Secondly, how he demonstrated super leadership doing the things that he just explained to you. And I felt like having those examples would amplify those two areas of leadership for other people to see whether they like football or not.

Ronnie Gage: Growing up without my dad helped me. I've told many people this. In my career, dealing with kids that in this day and time there's so many them that have different home lives and different problems. But I wasn't near as sympathetic maybe as some people because I lived it. I don't let them use that as a crutch because I still felt like it came down to choices and it's their choice. Our job was to help them find those choices that were a positive and might be a life changer for them. I know coaching was a life changer for me. There's no doubt about it.

In the book your write that in the eternal battle between talent and heart, you indicate that you would choose heart every time. Can you elaborate on that and explain what you meant?

Ronnie Gage: I was always more concerned about the chemistry of the team than I was with the talent of the team. The chemistry is something you can grow with. With talent, you either got it or you don't. Now don’t misunderstand me, I'd love to have a team full of talent that's got great heart. You’ve got a great formula for success there. I've won with kids that were just good high school football players that bought in and just did everything you could ask them and then some. It's a tough game and not everybody can do those things. It takes special kids to do that.

My 1996 team was just full of chemistry. I nearly left to go to another school that spring. And I backed out. Someone asked me why I backed out and I said, I don't know. There's just something special about these kids. They ended up going 15-0 and were still peeking when the season was over. It was just a tremendous group of young men. The chemistry was just unbreakable.

What advice do you have for a person who is approaching retirement age, but still has things they want to accomplish?

Tom Thompson: I have found that the dreams that I may have had back when I was a teenager are still very real. For example, let's talk about football. I had always wanted to play collegiate football. By the time I got to be able to go do that, my dad had gotten sick with cancer. Instead of going off and playing college football, I stayed back with him. I didn't want to be off trying to have a college experience with my dad sick. But because I chose to do that, I ended up having athletic eligibility when I was older. And so, what I would say to people is take an inventory of the dreams that you had as a young person. And if you still have any sort of a notion about those dreams, it could be that those were God-given. And if they are, you need to let God get with you on that. I was not going to be a kicker when I went to go play as a young man, but I ended up learning how to be one in order to have that childhood dream fulfilled. There are things that God may have intended us to do but we made a different choice at the time when we were younger but could have done it. I would argue that every step we ever take would lead us back to that.

After people have read The Life Coach, as authors, what would you like audiences to take away from the reading experience?  What is your greatest hope for the book?

Ronnie Gage: In coaching, I wanted to see how far the profession could take me. I had a great 42 years and I leave the profession with absolutely zero regrets. I think coach is a very strong word. I've got over 45 kids in the coaching profession that played for me. My grandkids still call me Coach. I'm very proud of that. (This book) is about life. It's about the ups and downs of what you need to do, what's going to make you a better person, and makes people around you better.

Tom Thompson: What prompted me to even approach Coach Gage to write this book is that it would inspire people to realize that they can handle the good, the bad, and the ugly of life in a way that allows them to continue to feel like their life is a success. I just think it’s important for people see how God can be a stabilizer in life. That was important for me to see because to this day, I'm still learning about life through Coach Gage. I call him Coach, not just these kids. Here I am, 71 years old, and I call him Coach. He's helped me through all sorts of things with my own family and given me a perspective that has really encouraged me. I think that's the thing about this book, if I was going to give it one word, it would be encouragement. This book will encourage you.

To purchase The Life Coach: Small-Town Lessons on Faith, Family, and Football:

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