I was lucky enough to have amazing mentors along my career journey, but none made as big of an impact in my life both professionally and personally as much as Coach Tommy Groom.
I never played for Tommy, he was retired from coaching when we met.
It was perfect timing as I was just starting out on my career and trying to figure how it all worked with a young family and very little business experience.
Tommy was one of those once in a lifetime characters you meet and if you read this all the way through you will be inspired and hopefully entertained as he had some crazy stories!
His advice to me on the day we met.
"Everything will fall into place, if you're headed to the right place"
This is his story...
Tommy grew up in a very small town in what he liked to say, West "By God" Virginia. His blue collar, coal miner DNA, naturally allowed him to break down life into it's simplest common sense form.
He never made things overly complicated or dramatic.
Always looking for the good in people.
Tommy had a great college football playing career at Virginia Tech in the late 1960's and then spent the next 30+ years coaching at the D1 level.
Like most coaches he went through a gypsy life of transitions, packing up and starting over several times and even being married several times.
The one thing I really admired about coach was that he never seemed to miss a day of living without maximum effort, a slick grin and most important that infectious positive attitude!
I can remember this moment like it was yesterday. I asked him; "Out of all the places you ever coached, where was the best time in your life"?
At that moment this brilliant response forever changed my perspective.
"The best placed I've ever worked, is wherever I'm At"
He would tell me "Don't worry about your next job, make sure you are taking care of the one you're current in".
Practical advice and 100% true.
Coach and I traveled around the world for several years operating the National Football League's Youth Development programs.
We put on hundreds of NFL youth events, camps, clinics, tournaments from Boston to Bangkok and as you can imagine we had the experience of a lifetime.
We were very lucky and we knew it. Never taking it for granted.
We worked with incredibly passionate administrators, coaches and players from all corners of the globe.
All though there were communication challenges, all of us had one shared goal of expanding a sport we all loved and having the platform to make a difference in kids life's through sports.
A natural bond.
Tommy and I spent thousands of hours together on planes, trains, in airports, hotels, on football fields and occasionally in some of the wackiest bars on the planet.
We were invited into countless homes of our host coaches to explore their culture and spend time with them and their families.
Even though we were tired from travel and long days running events, he pushed us not miss a chance to I discover new things and build friendships that have lasted 20+ years.
He always said that no one really cares about how much experience you have or where you went to college, it's always about the relationships you build along the way that will be the single most import aspect to your career 3-5-10 years from now.
He was spot on.
His thoughts on experience were summed up in this classic Tommy quote:
"You can no more do, what you don't know, to come back from where you ain't never been"
Let that one sink in.
Each trip was unique and special. We discovered how small the world really is and that there are so many generous, caring people in this world.
That was our common connector on every stop, we heard and shared amazing stories about overcoming obstacles and resources and how sports is a microcosm of life.
I shared a front row seat to listen and learn from all his incredible stories and was a participant on a great deal of new ones.
But I will never forget one of the many classic Tommy moments. This one in particular was in Tokyo on a promotional tour for an NFL pre season American Bowl game.
What Tommy liked to do out of respect for our hosts, would be to attempt to begin every press conference or event when he addressed an audience for the first time, he loved to say hello in the language of that country.
He gave me the task of helping him learn it on our way to each event. Sometimes I would have to remind him what country we were in let alone learn a second language.
I would usually spend half the flight repeating how to say hello in whatever language over an over until he could finally say his standard greeting.
Sometimes I would be left to write the phrase on napkins, but he didn't just look for my help, typical Tommy would include everyone around him. He would practice on the flight crew, the people on the plane and just about everyone in the airport regardless if they were from the country we were traveling to or not.
I really do give him credit for trying, but he never got it right.
So this particular time in Tokyo, after practicing on the 11 hour flight, we entered the press conference room, I looked him in the eyes and had him practice one last time, which he nailed.
I'm not sure what happened in the five seconds from the time he said Konnichiwa, to the moment he bowed, hit his head on the mic, looked at the crowd, grinned and says in Spanish...Feliz Navidad!
The room went dead silent, we couldn't believe what we just heard and the look on everyone in that rooms face was a mix between confusion and sadness.
Until finally our Japanese interpreter respectfully broke the silence with a soft response of "Merry Christmas Coach".
It was July.
Tommy had so many incredible stories that were so out of this world crazy, but as I spent more time with him, I began to understand how and more importantly why they happened.
I could listen to his stories over and over again on our travels. They never got old.
The lessons of life he would weave into these stories were masterful and always relevant to what he knew was troubling me or anyone else we wound up meeting on the road.
His passion was people and he always had a way to put challenges into perspective, regardless if we were in South Korea of South Carolina.
A sad but a legendary Tommy story and the absolute moment when I knew he operated at a whole different level then the rest of the world was from a phone call I received from him right after the New Years in 1998.
Although it was very serious and horrible event, his positive attitude was like a slap to the head on a persons character being revealed through challenges.
But on January 2, 1998 I received that call from Tommy which revealed who he truly was.
"Hey My Man, I have good news and bad news."
I hesitated to ask, ok whats the bad news?
In a cool, deliberate voice and I kid you not he said "I burnt my house down"!
I shocking ask, "How did that happen"?
His response was "Deep frying a turkey on my back porch"!
I was shocked and wasn't sure if he was fooling around "Coach are you and the family ok".
"Yea we are all good, you know how quick I am on my feet, got them all out safe except for the kids pet turtle, that thing was always too dang slow"!
Somehow he found a way to let me know it's going to be all right.
We just cracked up.
I said "Well if the bad news is your house burning down, what's the good news"?
Without missing a beat..."We get a NEW HOUSE"!
So one day after such devastation, he still found it in him to find the positive side of life during an incredibly sad situation for him and his family.
Sadly, they lost everything. The kids Christmas presents, all their clothes, family photos and 30 years of championship rings, team pictures, mementoes that I am sure were very sentimental his coaching career and life.
He found a way which I'm sure was so painful at the moment to find something positive out of this unimaginable event.
At the time it obviously wasn't funny but as time passed and he sorted out his housing and got life back in order for his family, he would tell that very story with such gusto and detail it too became part of his legacy.
He simply would never allow himself of anyone around him act like the victim in any situation and was never looking for sympathy, he turned it into a lesson for all of us.
He lived his life exactly how he lectured so often about.
The funny thing was he never brought up that you should never cook a deep fried turkey inside a covered porch attached to your house. That part was assumed by everyone.
When you did complain to him about challenges or people he would always say "If you can't roll with it, buy new tires".
I learned from coach that it's all in your perspective on how to tackle a challenge you are facing. No matter how large or painful at that moment.
He would tell you to take a second, think about it, don't get emotional and break it into common sense and find a solution.
He loved to say this about the tough decisions:
"Once you make a decision, it will be the best one you make"He lived by the words he preached.
His zest for life, football, people and enjoying the exact moment that he was living in was contagious.
He believed in how you carried yourself, was how others would perceive you.
He would sarcastically say, "I always have a chance to prove them right once I open my dang mouth!
Regardless of the occasion, coach was always the slickest dressed in the room.
He always wore a standard sport coat, polo shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.
Out of our group of khaki and sneaker wearing schleps he was the boss.
We would always tease him about his year round tan.
Which you should know, was only on his face.
I even asked him one time "Why don't you ever tan anywhere else but your face"?
In coaches pure common sense he says "My man, it only matters what I look like walking into the bar".
Another life lesson learned coach!
Coach Tommy Groom passed away at the age of 55 in his sleep March 2003.
He was attending a coaching clinic doing what he loved. Helping and teaching others.
Coach had a major impact on all those who knew him, worked with him, lucky enough to be coached by him and call him a friend, dad, brother or even an ex husband!
I was so incredibly fortunate to have spent all those years with him and honestly never seen him mad or hear him say a bad word about anyone.
I do think of him often and the massive impact he has had on my life. Especially during trying times.
What an incredible mentor.
I only wish I had an opportunity to say good bye and thank him.
But I hope how I lived my life by always trying my best, helping others, staying positive and enjoying every moment is my thank you to coach...wherever he's at.
If you had a mentor make an impact on your career and life, please leave a comment and share.
Rob Thompson Former NFL, Walt Disney Company Executive and host of the weekly podcast "Interview with Influencers in Sports and Entertainment" Sundays 7pm EST www.RobThompsonLive.com