How A Mentor Changed My Life
I was lucky enough to have amazing mentors along my career journey, but none made as big of an impact in my life both professionally and personally as much as Coach Tommy Groom.
I never played for Tommy, he was retired from coaching when we met, I met him when I was starting my business career and trying to figure how it all worked.
His simple advice to me one the day we met.
“Everything will fall into place, if you are headed to the right place”
His incredible story on how he lived everyday is worth sharing…
Tommy grew up in a very small town in what he liked to say, West “By God” Virginia. His blue collar, coal miner DNA, naturally allowed him to break down life into it’s simplest common sense form. He never made things overly complicated or dramatic.
Always looking for the good in people.
Tommy had a great college football playing career at Virginia Tech in the late 1960’s and then spent the next 30+ years coaching at the D1 level.
Like most coaches he went through a gypsy life of transitions, packing up and starting over several times and even being married several times.
The one thing I really admired about coach was that he never seemed to miss a day of living without maximum effort, a slick grin and most important that infectious positive attitude!
I can remember this moment like it was yesterday. I asked him; “Out of all the places you ever coached, where was the best time in your life”?
At that moment this brilliant response forever changed my perspective.
“The best placed I’ve ever worked, is wherever I’m at”
He would tell me “Don’t worry about your next job, make sure you are taking care of the one you’re current in”.
Practical advice and 100% true.
Coach and I traveled around the world for several years operating the National Football League’s Youth Development programs.
We put on hundreds of NFL youth events, camps, clinics, tournaments from Boston to Bangkok and as you can imagine we had the experience of a lifetime.
We were very lucky and we knew it. Never taking it for granted.
We worked with incredibly passionate administrators, coaches and players from all over the world, all of us with one goal of expanding a sport we all loved and having the platform to make a difference in kids life’s through sports.
We spent thousands of hours together on planes, trains, in airports, hotels, on fields and certainly some of the greatest bars on the planet.
We ate at countless homes of other coaches homes throughout the world. I discovered how important building relationships meant to the foundation of a career.
Each trip was unique and special. We met so many characters and amazing people who shared our love of American Football and the massive impact it had on all our life’s regardless of where we were from.
That was our common connector on every stop, we heard and shared amazing stories and built lifelong relationships everywhere we went together.
I had a front row seat to listen and learn from all his incredible stories and was a participant on a great deal of new ones.
I will never forget one of the many classic Tommy moments. This one in particular was in Tokyo on a promotional tour for an NFL pre season American Bowl game.
What Tommy liked to do out of respect for our hosts, he would attempt to begin every press conference or event when he addressed an audience with saying hello in the language of that country.
I would usually spend half the flight repeating how to say hello in whatever language over an over until he could finally say it clearly.
Sometimes I would write out the phrase on napkins, but he didn’t just look for my help, typical Tommy, he would include everyone in this task. He would practice on the flight crew, the people around us on the plane and just about everyone in the airport regardless if they were from the country we were traveling to or not.
I really do give him credit for trying, but he never got it right.
So this particular time, after hours of practicing and as I am whispering to him hello in Japanese for the three thousand time, we enter the press conference room.
I’m not sure what happened in the five seconds from the time I told him one final time Konnichiwa, to the moment he bowed, hit his head on the mic, he stares at the reporters and proceeds to say in Spanish, Feliz Navidad!
The room went silent, we all couldn’t believe what we just heard and the look on everyone in that room was a mix between confusion and sadness. We all just froze.
Until finally a Japanese reporter respectfully broke the silence with a soft response of “Merry Christmas coach”.
It was March.
He had so many incredible stories that were so out of this world crazy, but as you spent more time with him you started to understand how they happened.
I could listen to those stories over and over again on our travels. They never got old.
The lessons of life he would weave into these stories were masterful and always relevant to what he knew was troubling me or anyone else we wound up meeting on the road.
His passion was people and he always had a way to put things into perspective, regardless if we were in South Korea of South Carolina.
A sad but a legendary Tommy story and the absolute moment when I knew he operated at a whole different level then the rest of the world.
Although it was very serious and horrible event, his attitude towards was like a slap to the head on a persons character being revealing through challenges.
I received a very disturbing call from coach on January 2, 1998.
“Hey My Man, I have good news and bad news.”
I hesitated to ask, ok whats the bad news?
In a cool, deliberate voice and I kid you not he said “I burnt my house down”!
I shocking ask, “how did that happen”?
His response was “Deep Frying A Turkey on my back porch”!
I was shocked and wasn’t sure if he was fooling around “Coach are you and the family ok”.
“Yea we are all good, you know how quick I am on my feet, got them all out safe except for the pet turtle, that thing was always too dang slow”!
Somehow he found a way to make me less concerned. We just cracked up.
I said “Well if the bad news is your house burning down”? I’m afraid to ask, what’s the good news”?
Without missing a beat…”We get a NEW HOUSE”!
So one day after such devastation, he still found it in him to find the positive side of life during a very sad situation for him and his family.
Sadly, they lost everything. The kids Christmas presents, all their clothes, family photos and 30+ years of bowl game rings, team pictures, mementoes that I am sure were very sentimental his coaching career.
He found a way which I’m sure was so painful at the moment to find something positive out of this unimaginable event.
At the time it obviously wasn’t funny but as time passed and he sorted out his housing and got life back in order for his family, he would tell that story with such gusto and detail it too became part of his legacy.
But he simply would never allow himself of anyone around him to act like the victim in any situation and was never looking for sympathy, he turned it into a lesson for all of us.
The funny thing was he never brought up that you should never cook a deep friend turkey inside a covered porch attached to your house. That part was assumed.
When you did complain to him about challenges or people he would always say “If you can’t roll with it, buy new tires”.
I learned from coach that it’s all in your perspective on how to tackle a challenge you are facing. No matter how large. He would tell you to take a second, think about it, don’t get emotional and break it into common sense decisions.
He loved to say this about the tough ones:
“Once you make a decision, it will be the best one you make”
He lived by the words he preached.
His zest for life, football, people and enjoying the exact moment that he was living in was contagious.
He believed in how you carried yourself, was how others would perceive you.
He would sarcastically say, “I always have a chance to prove them right once I open my dang mouth!
Regardless of the occasion, coach was always the slickest dressed in the room.
He always wore a standard sport coat, polo shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.
Out of our group of khaki and sneaker wearing schleps he was the boss.
We would always tease him about his year round tan.
Which you should know, was only on his face.
I even asked him one time “Why don’t you ever tan anywhere else but your face”?
In coaches pure common sense he says “My man, it only matters what you look like walking into the bar”.
Another life lesson learned coach!
Coach Tommy Groom passed away at the age of 55 in his sleep March 2003.
He was at a coaching clinic doing what he loved. Helping and teaching others.
Coach had a major impact on all those who knew him, worked with him, lucky enough to be coached by him and call him a friend, dad, brother or even an ex husband!
He was a true character and everyday I apply those lessons I learned into my life.
I was so incredibly fortunate to have spent all those years with him and honestly never seen him mad or hear him say a bad word about anyone.
I do think of him often and the massive impact he has had on my life.
What an incredible mentor.
I only wish I had an opportunity to say good bye and thank him.
But I hope how I followed his lessons on how I lived my life to try my best, help others, stay positive and enjoy every moment is my thank you to coach…wherever he’s at.
Rob Thompson Former NFL, Walt Disney Company Executive and host of the weekly podcast “Interview with Influencers in Sports and Entertainment” Sundays 7pm EST www.RobThompsonLive.com