This Saturday it will be seven years since the life of Jim Skerl ‘74 moved from this world to the next. As my wife Ann and I always do, we will travel to Lake View Cemetery to visit Jim’s grave and to recall, as we do so many other times throughout the year, the incredible impact that he had on our family and on so many others.
Whenever I can, I try to pass on that impact by telling one of the many “Jim” stories that are embedded in my heart and mind. On Wednesday morning before school I was able to do just that with a gathering of our fall sports athletes. These young men were in the Breen Center for the Performing Arts to hear from Cleveland Police Officers Freddy Diaz, School Resource Officer, and Tim Higgins, Director of Security, about how to stay out of the “what was I thinking?” kind of trouble that young men can sometimes get themselves into.
Officers Diaz and Higgins, the leaders of our fantastic Campus Security staff, gave our young men a lot of really important information and extremely insightful advice about how to go about their lives with an “Ignatian 24-hours every day” attitude.
When they were finished it was my turn to spend a couple of minutes with our fall sports student-athletes discussing the Ignatian context of their participation in athletics and their membership on one of our many teams. Beginning with important Ignatian concepts like Magis and A.M.D.G., I worked my way to Jim Skerl.
I told these young men that St. Irenaeus, centuries before St. Ignatius was born, wrote that the glory of God is “the human person fully alive”, and that if we are to do all things for God’s glory, as St. Ignatius taught, then our focus should be on becoming fully alive and helping others to do the same. This was the legacy left to us in so many ways by Jim Skerl.
I recounted the story of a time when Jim was coaching freshman basketball and his team had delivered a particularly uninspired performance in a losing cause. The next day as players filed into the Carroll Gym they were expecting what coaches usually dished out after such a loss - what those in the British soccer world call “the hair dryer treatment”. Think of Bobby Knight meets Brian Kelley. Not pretty.
Well, when Coach Skerl entered the gym he silently walked to the end line and then ran and touched the foul line. Returning to the end line he then ran and touched the half-court line and ran back to the end line. Then the opposite foul line and then the opposite end line. He was doing a drill known throughout the basketball world as “ladders”, a typical punishment for a bad performance. The only difference here was that it was the coach who was running ladders and not the players.
It didn’t take long for his team to figure out what was happening and they joined their coach in running, touching, turning, running, touching, turning, and so on. As always, Jim Skerl led by example. As always, he showed his players the care and respect that he expected them to show to each other. He berated no one. He embarrassed no one. Instead, he humbled himself, and in doing so he led his team as Jesus would have.
When I stand at Jim’s grave this Saturday I will shed a tear as I thank him for giving me the perfect story to inspire our Wildcats to embrace the humility of Christ rather than to imitate the arrogance so prevalent in the world of athletics. But after the tear will come a smile - shared with my great friend - knowing that even in death he can show people how to glorify God by striving to be truly alive.