Personal victories are what Bob Tankard cares about. He relies on them, he says, because they are messages that validate life and each person’s place on earth. Bob Tankard is the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football coach.
He’s got the winner’s attitude and it just won’t quit.
When Bob Tankard says “I have a firm belief” or when he says “I mean it, I really mean it,” he clenches black hands into tight fists and squeezes his dark, merry eyes shut. His face forms a solid, peaceful expression.
The coach is 39 years old. Today he is confined to the undersized dimensions of a cafe chair at La Patisserie restaurant in Vineyard Haven, across the street from Coach T’s Sport Shop, which he opened in 1980.
He wears sweats and a red softball jacket. A dark baseball cap covers the top of his head. On the front is a patch with a yellow cross and above the cross are the letters F. C. A. They stand for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a national organization of educational and professional athletes and coaches. Coach T is a member and has attended the association’s conferences in cities on the mainland.
Coach Tankard’s words vibrate from his body; here is what students hear on the football practice field:
“You can do it. And you can make it. And you can achieve. And you can do all those things if you want to do them.”
But that is only part of his pep talk.
He is a man who measures his worth through his influence on the lives of children and young adults he meets, on the football practice field, in the classroom, at church or on the street corner.
He is straightforward. He is not deluded with thoughts of success in the pro football world.
Alison Shaw
“If I became a professional, I might not have been able to help individuals. It wasn’t until about six years ago that I realized my purpose in athletics wasn’t to play professional ball, but it was to help individuals develop a purpose in their life, a desire. What can you contribute to our society? How can you contribute? How can you be the example? How can you help a person who is down and out? Are you willing to help someone? These are the things that I feel that are important.
“And why do I coach? Gosh, I’d like to pp the Super Bowl some day. I’d love to go to the Super Bowl some day. But you know, if I never get there but if I knew that one kid survived or achieved something through my help, than that is more important than going to the Super Bowl. And that’s what it is all about in life. There’s only one team in a division that can go to the Super Bowl. I have 37 to 40 kids I can influence in my life. And their lives are a lot more important to me than going to the Super Bowl and winning a game. Last year, we didn’t win a lot of games, but we had a lot of personal victories. I received a letter from-a kid who said, ‘you never realized how much you helped me.’ He told me ‘you are more than just a coach. You are football for Martha’s Vineyard.’”
He leans over the table. “At a time when I needed encouragement or direction, I got it from somebody else. It gave me the strength to come back this year,” he says.
He continues: “Everybody’s got some worth. It depends on whether you want to spend the time to bring it out. If you want to write it off, and say, okay, all I’m going to do is cater to the great kids, then that’s your prerogative. Everybody’s got a right to do that. But somebody’s got to be willing to say, I’m going to go the long road because I believe in that kid. I believe there’s something in there worthwhile and I’m going to pull it out of him. And you might not see the kid pull it out, but down the road a piece, it might come out.”
For Coach T - an affectionate moniker which stuck with him after he opened his shop - there is no conflict between his professional and spiritual life.
“You know, I believe that one thing that makes a person whole, is their faith in God. I think God is a very important thing. Our society today separates God, and leaves him out. You don’t bring God into the government, into education, you don’t bring God into anything. But our society was formed on our religious backbone. Our dollar says In God we Trust. They had some kind of formula in which they believed. Today we get away from it and I think this is one reason why drugs are so rampant.
“We’ve lost the concept that God can help an individual. People say they will find their answer in drugs and in alcohol. And it’s not in that. What I’m saying is why can’t we begin to put our trust in God to help us through those times. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve gotten down on my knees and prayed that he would give me the strength to get through a season,” including last season, when the -team lost to Nantucket, says Coach T.
“When I was a kid, going to school in New Jersey, we saluted the flag and said the Lord’s prayer. It was like opening up a day,” he says.
When Bob Tankard was 15, he and his parents and his nine brothers and sisters moved to the Island. After he received his degree in physical education at the University of Massachusetts in 1972, he wanted to return to the Island to work.
During his first job interview here, Coach Tankard gave the hard sell. He told the man who interviewed him:
“You may have interviewed 1,000 applicants, but none of the people you interviewed is as good as I am.”
He smiles brightly and continues: “He thought I must have been the cockiest kid in the world, but I meant what I said. Not because I was cocky, but because I knew, deep down in my heart, that I could do the job they wanted me to do. There was nothing I would let stand in my way to accomplish that. I told him he would never have to fire me. I told him that I have the integrity to know that when I’m not doing a job I’d quit before I was fired.”
He got the job and he’s been coaching nine years now.
“I want to help these kids more than anything in the world. The greatest challenge of all is those kids that are problem kids, because everybody writes them off,” he says softly.
“Those are the ones who always come back and say thank you, you helped me out. Those are the kids who own their businesses now and are doing very well. They tell me, ‘yeah, coach, you never let us down. You were always there.’ Some people write those people off. And those are the challenges.”
Three coaches inspired Bob Tankard when he was a boy: Francis Pachico, Maurice Dore and Daniel McCarthy. He says these coaches from his high school days taught him how to achieve.
“Sports gave me a reason, a sense of belonging, a group of people that I’ve collected throughout the years. If I could be as effective on those kids’ lives as those coaches that I had were on mine, if I could just pass that on. . .” The resolution in his tight facial muscles finishes the sentence.
His thoughts swing back to the professional sports world, and the people in it. Coach T says:
“Sure, I believe a person who plays in professional sports should get paid. But, what, million dollar contracts? Two million dollar contracts? I think it’s because they have so much money that they’re getting into the drugs and the alcohol. I don’t think they know what to do with their money. I think kids look to that and say they want to be like that and they get right into the same boat. Those guys are influencing the minds of young people and I don’t think there’s any’ place for it.”