ON THE FAST TRACK

 

Tom Esslinger and his track and field teams are creating a
winning dynasty at Homewood High School

 

by Jim Fahy  photos by Brit Huckabay and courtesy of Tom Esslinger

 

For Homewood High School track and field coach, Tom Esslinger, working for the betterment of others is not only in his blood; it’s also the family business. His father, John, was a successful high school coach, and his mother, Betty, has been teaching for 48 years and currently helms Scottsboro’s AP English program.

Nature/nurture debates aside, strong traces of each of Esslinger’s parents are alive and well in their son: Not only does he like to win (which he does), but also when he talks, he can (and will) spin quite a yarn.

“My mom’s literary influence definitely rubbed off on me,” says Esslinger. “She has always quoted the classics, poems, quotes, and passages to motivate me. She really got me into Thoreau in high school. Another book she had me read that had a profound impact on me was Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. In terms of classics, I loved Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and The Great Gatsby.

Esslinger continues: “From a sports and motivation standpoint, she really got me into John Wooden books and his pyramid of success. My favorite quote and something I try to emphasize to the team is: ‘Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.’”

Esslinger, 38, has been coaching track at Homewood High School since 2005. His ability to cultivate talent and garner victories no doubt came from his father, John, who brought home 46 state championships for Scottsboro High School and was inducted into the AHSAA Hall of Fame in 2010.

Fourteen years into his tenure, the younger Esslinger has racked up an impressive 21 state championships with success coming his first year. Then, after years of languishing in ill-suited classifications, Homewood found its proper place in 2012. The other 20 championships came in rapid succession—with five of those coming just last year when the boy’s cross country team won state (the girl’s team was state runner up), and the indoor and outdoor teams swept state. Track championships were a major factor in Homewood having the most state championships in the state and being ranked as the seventh best high school athletic program in the state by Niche.

Should things continue at their current pace, the Esslingers will have a legitimate dynasty on their hands. Tom remains stoic: “I never take it for granted that, when we do win these championships, you never know when you will hit a dry spell. So that’s the challenge: To keep it going.”

Growing up in Scottsboro, Tom excelled both academically and as an athlete. Like any teenager, he was hesitant about going into teaching or coaching. Still, while studying political science at the University of South Alabama, Esslinger also was an athlete. “In high school I played basketball and ran track, and I always thought I’d play basketball in college. I got burnt out on it my senior year, and I had a situation in track where I felt really good at it. So I ended up doing that in college, and probably fell more in love with it. Doing the decathlon… Man, I loved it.”

Despite his lingering resistance, the allure of the family business proved too much: “After graduating from South Alabama, I came to law school at Samford. I did a year there, and while I didn’t hate it, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” This is why the aforementioned Wooden quote (and the Albom book—but more on that later) is quite revealing. “That’s really the driving force,” Esslinger continues. “I felt like I could have a positive impact on more people’s lives. Whether it’s my dad or mom as teachers…or Greg Echols at Mountain Brook—when I went over there to coach, watching how he interacted with student athletes—he’s a legend!

Having led Mountain Brook to 68 state championships, Echols’ legendary status is well earned. But, as it was with both Esslinger’s father and his college track coach, Clark Humphries, Tom wanted to teach kids something more than how to win. Taking up Echols on his invitation to help coach a few days a week, Esslinger left law school to pursue a master’s degree and his teaching certificate.  In 2005, he got the job at Homewood High School, teaching Modern U.S. History and coaching track. His first state championship came that year and, with it, some instant attention.

“The first year, when we won that state championship, I think that kickstarted things a little bit,” says Esslinger. “And since I’ve been here, all of my bosses have said, ‘We wanna make this better.’ I’ve always felt a lot of support behind what we do.”

“His knowledge of what it takes to be successful allows his practices to be very organized, and the student-athletes know exactly what they need to do in order to reach their maximum level,” says Dr. Bill Cleveland, Superintendent of Homewood City Schools. “I have observed him at meets simply encouraging his student-athletes and reminding them that they have already accomplished their goals at practice, so all they have left is to relax and enjoy doing their best at the meet. His demeanor seems to lessen the anxiety of the student-athletes and allows them to perform at their maximum level.”

Esslinger also relishes the support he’s received from his fellow coaches Eric Swope and Steve Sills at Homewood Middle School. Not afraid of keeping busy during his inaugural year, Esslinger, with Swope and Sills, established an Elementary School Track Meet in 2005, offering fun competition among students from the system’s three elementary schools. Designed as a fun, low-pressure introduction to track and field for 4th and 5th graders, the event proved foundational, inspiring kids to join the middle school teams, which, in turn, prepared them for competing at the high school level.

While getting initiated in the sport early has tangible results, Esslinger’s open-door policy is part of what keeps the track team unique in terms of developing talent and serving as a safe space for curious students. “We do not have tryouts,” he says. “We’re open to anyone and everyone. Obviously, if you can’t jump then you can’t be a high jumper. There are some standards in some events—we’re not just going to let anyone do hurdles or pole vault. But just about anybody who can run a 100-meter can join the team. We’ve had people who started off on a very basic level that, over the course of four years, became major contributors. For example, we had a kid who had never thrown a javelin move here as a sophomore, and this past year broke the school record. That’s one of the most rewarding things.”

That openness—and the relatively modest size of Homewood’s team—means that everyone on the team is able to compete in several events. Sometimes this is necessary just to accrue the points needed to win an event. It’s also a chance for the athlete to find the event that suits them best.

It also becomes a way for athletes to further develop their skills. Jaden Alexander, 17, played baseball at a young age. “I stole a lot of bases, so the coaches were like, ‘Oh, you’re pretty fast. You should try track,’” he laughs. “After 6th grade, I started running track. I was the fastest on the team as a 7th grader for the 100-meter, and I had a personal best every single meet.” Alexander’s speed has paid off as a cornerback for Homewood’s football team, and now he’s fielding offers from universities, just as his idol Aaron Ernest did. Ernest, an All-American sprinter who came to Homewood after Hurricane Katrina devastated his Louisiana home, became a standout wide receiver for Homewood’s football team and ran track. He turned down football scholarships to become an award-winning sprinter for LSU. Now Ernest is on the verge of a career in the NFL; like Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah, who sprinted and did the long jump for Homewood.

“I remember Jaden really looking up to [Ernest] as being the fastest guy, the best long jumper,” recalls Esslinger. “Now Jaden’s the fastest guy, the best long jumper. I think that applies to all of them. They had somebody that they looked up to, and they fill that role.” [A knee injury caused Alexander to miss football season. Esslinger hopes to have him back for the outdoor track season.]

Many of Esslinger’s current athletes have similar interdisciplinary skills. Will Stone, 18, gave up soccer for track. According to Esslinger, he’s the best distance runner in the state and on his way to winning the most state championships in Homewood’s history. He also has a 35 on his ACT (“Obviously, the sky’s the limit,” says Esslinger). Makiyah Sills, 17, was a basketball player who became a runner before challenging herself with hurdles. Like Esslinger, track is also in her blood: Her father, Steve Sills, is one of Homewood’s middle school coaches. “He always pushed me, so I stuck with it,” Makiyah says. “I enjoyed it, and it brought us together.” Alex Brooks was doing cross-country in middle school before she was inspired by her cousin to become a pole-vaulter. “They have to have a daredevil, free spirit,” says Esslinger of pole vaulters.

But despite creating an inspiring and winning culture, Esslinger doing right by his kids is first and foremost in his mind. “Imagine practice,” he says. “Even if we have 6 or 7 coaches, you’re trying to reach all of these different levels with 100 plus kids. Some days, I have to coach long jump, triple jump, high jump, hurdles, and sprints. How do I balance working with a top-level kid—who needs a certain attention to detail—while still helping the new kid to feel special? It’s probably the most frustrating part of the job. That’s probably the biggest struggle. I’m trying to have that impact on everybody.”

And with this, I’m again struck by Esslinger’s gentle nature—something that one normally doesn’t associate with those who lead successful athletic programs. Considering how he was raised—and the way he was inspired by his coaches and mentors, even if it’s more common than one thinks, it still feels rare—but something that, given the results, more programs should aspire to.

So back to Tuesdays with Morrie. Written by sportswriter, Mitch Albom, the memoir details the author reconnecting with his mentor, a sociology professor, who is suffering from ALS. I asked Esslinger why this book means so much to him: “One of the themes that stuck with me is the notion that we are really fulfilled by loving others and that true fulfillment of our purpose comes from those relationships. At some point, I think we all try to figure out what fulfills us as individuals, and I definitely feel fortunate because I think this profession has given me the opportunity to have meaningful relationships over time with a lot people… Also, it reminds me that life is short, and it makes me want to put a lot into helping those who I teach or coach.”

He then directs me to this passage: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”   

Now that’s victory.