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Bringing out the best in youth

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Dave Potter, a longtime educator and soccer coach.

Q: How did the Rogue Valley become to be your home?

Dave: I was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. I started my teaching career in 1972 in Janesville, Wisconsin. What brought me here were the mountains, the rivers, the outdoors, the beautiful Pacific Northwest. My father-in-law spent a few days here and never stopped talking about how beautiful it was. So I came out to investigate a teaching job thinking that at least I’ll see Southern Oregon.

The Medford schools personnel director, Frank Doyle, suggested I go up and see Crater Lake. I had an afternoon to drive up ... and before I got there I was mesmerized. And then I got to Crater Lake. I called my wife, Karen, from Crater Lake and said, “You have got to see what I’m looking at. You will not believe your eyes.” The drive down was even more beautiful, because the sun was setting along the Rogue River. By the time I got back to Medford, I called her and said, “I think I want this job. Would you consider it?”

Q: Where did you teach in Medford?

Dave: After teaching 10 years in Wisconsin, I moved out here and got hired at Lone Pine Elementary. Lone Pine was crowded, and Kennedy was being built. In 1981, Kennedy Elementary opened up. I taught at Kennedy and loved it. Then in ’97, when Abe Lincoln opened, Bob Hartwig convinced me to come over there with him. I retired from teaching in 2011.

Q: How did you get involved with soccer? Did you play as a kid?

Dave: I was coaching wrestling in Janesville, Wisconsin. I moved out to Medford in 1981 and immediately hooked up with Fred Lucas and the Medford Senior High wresting program. I started as a volunteer coach here, working with high school kids.

In ’84, when our oldest, Bobby, turned 5 years old, soccer was an opportunity for him to participate in sports. I went to an informational meeting. I told myself, “Whatever you do, do not volunteer to coach. You’re already teaching and coaching wrestling; you can’t split your time any more than you already have.” I sat in the back of the room, as far away from the presenter as possible. He said, “Alright, if no one is willing to step up and take these kids, then Kennedy Elementary will not have a U5 to U8 team.” It was then that my hand went up. I was thinking, “What am I doing, but I’ve got to come through for these kids.” So that’s how I got into soccer. I had never played it as a child. I had observed the foreign citizens of Madison, who were playing soccer down at the park. They were passionate about this game. I got involved in ’84 as a reluctant volunteer.

Q: Why have you found coaching soccer so fulfilling?

Dave: For me, soccer is a game for all kids. Kids can be successful because the game of soccer has so much freedom. The element of creativity in the game of soccer is enormous. I can teach 12 players the same move, and they’re all going have a different take on it, their own little tweak. One of my philosophies is that the kids own the game. When a soccer match starts, that’s when I turn it over to them and let them make all the important decisions. I probably have a 3- to 5-percent influence on the game once the match starts. I get to sub and talk to them at halftime and that’s about it.

Almost all the negative things that occurred to me in sports had to do with coaches' comments. A basketball coach looked at my size and said, “Don’t bother coming out.” I couldn’t believe it because I could hold my own on a basketball court. I had a wrestling coach say to me, “You’re more trouble than you’re worth,” because I had asked to borrow a key to check my weight. I was the MVP of my high school wrestling team. I was determined to not be that kind of coach.

Q: What are some of your fondest memories of coaching?

Dave: Let me put it this way, there are immediate and long-term surprises. Coaching the girl’s team at St. Mary’s is a real pleasure. The players don’t leave training without waiting to say “Thank you” and shake my hand. They literally line up to say thank you after a grueling practice. A long-term surprise is coming home to find a letter on the front porch. A six- to seven-page letter from a player who I coached 10 or 12 years ago, telling me how much it meant to them, their high school years and playing for me as a coach. I had no idea whatsoever. I take those letters and I save them in a special place. You never know when you’re going to get surprised by the beauty and generosity of kids and their appreciation.

Q: What about the player who doesn’t have the aptitude to excel at soccer?

Dave: I’ve been working with children with disabilities now for a little over 20 years in my TOPSoccer program. I’ve come to believe that all children possess a gift of one kind or another. Coaching allows me to bring out those gifts. If that’s my mission in life, I consider myself extremely fortunate and blessed by God to have been put in this position.

Q: How have you seen soccer in the Rogue Valley develop over 40-plus years?

Dave: Soccer has grown all over the nation, but my primary concern is right here in the Rogue Valley. The numbers have grown. The understanding of soccer has grown, and without question our kids and our soccer families are connecting with the passion that I discovered early in coaching. The more I learn about soccer, the more I feel that passion. I can fully understand why countries around the world live and breathe soccer, because it’s a cultural thing. Soccer in this community is becoming more and more cultural.

I think soccer is taking a leading role in a community that loves sports and truly loves its youth participating in good things. Our coaching has come a long way. Today, the majority of our coaches have certifications and licenses. With more trained coaches, the more success we’re going to have. Not necessarily just success in winning, but success in all aspect of the sport. Falling in love with soccer will encourage young people to play for a lifetime and maybe come back and coach.

Q: What are your hopes for the future of soccer in the region?

Dave: I hope we see more and more of our youth players returning to the area and getting involved in the coaching process. Those are kids who came through our system, understand what we’re all about, and understand what Southern Oregon soccer is. They have a vested interest and they have a better understanding of the game than any of us ever did, so now they can bring it back and share it with the next generation.

I’m concerned about heading the ball; about the concussion issues. I think we’re looking at the possibility of eliminating heading from the game of soccer in the future. It’s already mandated by national and state organizations there is no heading until age 11. I think this rule change will probably work its way up even into the high school level.

Q: Other than coaching, what other activities do you enjoy?

Dave: I thoroughly enjoy the Pacific Northwest, being outdoors, doing some hiking, walking and bike riding. Golfing is a passion. I grew up playing golf. I used to play almost every day during the summer before I got involved in soccer. I try to golf once a week. Now, even being retired from teaching I can end up doing soccer five or six days a week. My favorite thing to do right now, and I would do this over anything else, is spend the day with our grandchildren.

Q: How have you been involved in statewide soccer?

Dave: I got involved in coaching the Olympic Development Program, but I had to make a choice. Do I continue moving up in the OPD and therefore spend less time with our Rogue Valley kids? I made the choice to stay here rather than coaching at the state level. I had to learn the game having not been a player. I study it all the time. Even with the experience and knowledge I have, I’ve never forgotten how I learned. People like Axel Anderson, who played the major role in our soccer organization here, taught me little things only he could tell you because he played professionally.

Q: What motivates you?

Dave: The fact that I can look back and say, “I helped shape lives,” means a great deal to me. I think I’ve been placed on this earth to do good things for other people, particularly young people.

I’ve been blessed. I’ve already outlived both my parents. My dad had Parkinson’s disease at 45 years old. By the time he was 50, we were having to help feed him. My mom was the seventh member of her family to die of cancer. She died two weeks after she found out that she had a brain tumor. She died at 62. My dad died at 64. My oldest brother passed away at 65 from another disease, so there’s not longevity in our family.

I taught for 40 years and never missed a day of school for health reasons. I have been very fortunate and blessed; that motivates me, too. I think I’m doing things right. I’m staying healthy. I eat pretty well and I stay active so I can continue to work with kids and make them feel valued.

Q: What is it about Southern Oregon that makes you call this home?

Dave: I truly feel like the luckiest person on the face of the earth to have landed in Medford, Oregon, a community that was great to bring your kids up in and allowed me to do something I love to do, which is work with youth. I discovered through the process that Medford is the perfect place to support children through youth sports and youth activities.

— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Dave Potter, a longtime local coach and teacher, now coaches the St. Mary's School girls soccer team. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]