February 18, 2008

Feb. 18, 2008

by Jac Coyne, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

When Chris Fox picked up his cell phone off the kitchen counter at his home in Wallaceburg, Ontario, he was amazed at the amount of new messages he had. He scanned through the various numbers, recognizing many of them; friends from his days as a Wheeling Jesuit University lacrosse player.

Scrolling down further, he noticed others that looked vaguely familiar. He wracked his brain trying to place the digits.

Then he got that queasy feeling in his stomach that comes with the unknown.

"Finally, one person triggered it in my head: okay, something happened at campus," said Fox.

Fox would never have guessed what happened. Not in a hundred years. It just didn't seem possible. Kevin Tyska, the fourth-year head coach at the Division II school in West Virginia, had gone home the afternoon of Jan. 21 complaining of not feeling well. Later that evening, he was gone.

"The first thing that went through my head was, 'How?' The guy was in amazing shape," said Fox. "It's just something you don't expect. He was 43."

Tyska's passing was especially tough for Fox. While Tyska had a rapport with all his players, his relationship with Fox grew over the summer of 2005. Fox decided to stay in Wheeling for the break and help Tyska in the team office. Tyska would even have Fox, who was entering his senior year, over for dinner.

While the friendship between coach and player blossomed during that summer internship, Fox was impressed with Tyska the minute he saw him. Wheeling Jesuit had played the fall of 2004 without a coach, but the university finally brought in a pair of candidates prior to the start of the spring season. The first candidate was solid, Fox said.

Tyska, as irrepressible as always, took the interview chair second.

"As soon he left, it was unanimous. Everybody wanted him," said Fox.

There was just something about Tyska that the players on the interview committee gravitated towards. He definitely knew his Xs and Os, but there was always something bubbling just below the surface. It was a sense of urgency that struck a chord with a bunch of gung-ho lacrosse guys.

"He was probably the most intense individual about anything who you'll meet in your life," said Fox. "The man loved Dunkin' Donuts, and he'd have an hour and half conversation with you about Dunkin' Donuts. From the beginning of the conversation to the end, he was just as intense."

The thought of that fire being extinguished was devastating.

"I let it all sink in and went through all the emotions. Just complete and total shock. Denial," said Fox. "I got upset when I started thinking about his young family. I was really close with Coach. I'd go to barbecues at his house."

With those memories fresh in his mind, Fox showed up in Wheeling, W.V., on Wednesday for the visitation and subsequent funeral. That first night, he met with fellow lacrosse alumni and talked about what they wanted for the program in the wake of Tyska's untimely death.

Fox, along with some others, drafted a letter to the athletic department extending all of the help they could provide, whether it was coaching contacts or recommendations. They owed it to Coach Tyska, he figured, to keep the current Cardinals on a consistent path.

The next day, Danny Sancomb, the WJU athletic director, called Fox to talk about his letter. A couple of hours later, another call from Sancomb came through.

By the way, Chris, this would be a de facto job interview for the men's lacrosse job.

Fox had no intention of throwing his hat in the coaching ring for his mentor's old job. Since he left the Whittier College women's program, where he was an assistant, Fox was whipping himself into shape for a run at spot in National Lacrosse League. He attended the NLL combine in Philadelphia and was preparing for open tryouts with Boston and Buffalo when the league's labor problems arose last fall. The strike forced Fox to put his dreams on hold for a year, but he had received sponsorship and a visa to play professional lacrosse in Melbourne, Australia.

Now he was being asked to follow in Tyska's footsteps.

"When they asked if I wanted to interview for the job, that's when the wheels really started turning. How am I going to do this? I've played with some of these guys," said Fox. "I was picking up my life and moving again - since graduation I haven't lived anywhere longer than five months. It went through my head, 'I'm doing this again.'"

"But once they officially offered me the job, I just said, 'I have to go.'"

Fox considered it an an honor to follow through on what Tyska had built for this season, but he took the job more to help the players who were part of the program he still loves.

"Speaking with the other alumni, we wanted more than somebody coming in and just getting by," said Fox. "In the alum's eyes, we wanted someone who knew what the program was like, what the campus was like, what the process was about."

"When I was here I went through three head coaches, so I'm used to the transition period these guys are going through. I realized I had the exact same loss that they had. Maybe not immediate because he wasn't my coach anymore, but he was still a very good friend of mine."

After a trip home to Wallaceburg to collect his things, Fox returned to Wheeling Jesuit on his birthday, Jan. 31, and met the team as they were finishing practice at 10 p.m. He could still see the hurt in the player's eyes and a sense of disarray. He knew he had a lot of work to do to get these players back on track.

"It's hard for me, because I don't know whether it was something in class, a girlfriend, or something at home. Or whether it is Coach," said Fox. "I really have to ask them, 'Hey what's going on?' The main thing I tell them - and it's something Coach would say - is don't show it in your game.

"Coach told me this when I was going through a tough time here: lacrosse has to be your escape for things like this. And that's going to be hard for these guys, because Coach was lacrosse for them. They are going to have to separate that now."

They will have to compartmentalize their feelings for their old coach because other teams aren't going give them any breaks simply because of the turmoil of the last month. Wheeling Jesuit lost its opener to Wingate and a road game against No. 4 Limestone looms this weekend. No. 7 C.W. Post and No. 2 Mercyhurst are slated for later this spring. Fox and the Cardinals would love to improve on last season's 5-8 mark, but they know it will be tough.

"Success is going to be measured a lot differently this year," admitted Fox. "You always measure success on championships and wins and that's still our focus, but the main thing is these young men make the best out of the situation.

"We all, in our own way, remember Coach every day. I think that's very important. But we never want to dwell on the fact that he's not here anymore. We don't want it be a negative thing. We almost have to treat it as a positive and come together and overcome something that's tragic and never planned for. This is one of the ultimate life experiences that these young men are going to have. Life will throw you a curveball.

"One of the main things that Coach Tyska said was always be prepared and always be proactive. Always have something set and something solid you can go back to so it's not a big shock. Coach always wanted players to be self-accountable. If they are self-accountable, they won't lose a step. Yeah, coach isn't here anymore, but they know in the back of their heads what Coach would be saying to them if they screwed up. Or if they didn't do this right."

The Wheeling Jesuit players will see daily reminders of Kevin Tyska. The Cardinals will wear a helmet sticker and have an embroidered emblem on their uniform memorializing their him. They end every practice with a "1-2-3, KT," chant.

But the most realistic reminder of their coach's passing will be on the sidelines this season.

Tyska's son, Jake, 7, will be the water boy for Wheeling Jesuit. Jake has the same fiery, intense attitude of his old man - Fox describes him as "a little terror" - and will provide a motivational catalyst for the players and coaches when things get tough. Tyska's wife, Cyd, and two daughters, Ellie and Samantha, will be in attendance for as many games as they can, Fox said.

Cyd and the kids would rather see their husband and father on the sidelines, but having Fox act as caretaker for Tyska's extended family provides some solace.

"I'm here not to so much replace him, but do the things that I see that need to be done," said Fox. "I'm here for the players more than anything."

When all those numbers showed up on his phone a month ago, Fox could have never guessed they would mark the death of a friend and a mentor. Nor could he have imagined it would lead him to the head coaching position at his alma mater.

Fox still considers himself a lacrosse player and might have been better served to spend a season playing professionally overseas to achieve his goal of reaching the NLL. He could have easily fulfilled his obligation to his former coach and friend with a donation to the school or a recommendation for a new coach, but Fox accepted an emotionally taxing job that will likely result in more losses than wins.

Chris Fox may have missed all the different messages people were trying to send him on Jan. 21, but he definitely answered the call.

Note: This article is one in a series of small college columns authored by LMO editor Jac Coyne. Click here for more, or contact Coyne at jcoyne@uslacrosse.org.

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