By DON O’BRIEN; Reprinted with Permission of Herald-Whig
Seth Coons, a player with the Transitions of Adams County Stars & Stripes team, couldn’t believe his eyes when he showed up to his first soccer practice earlier this year.
A longtime fan of Quincy University soccer, Coons walked on to the field and saw longtime Hawks coach Jack Mackenzie getting ready to run practice. Now retired, Mackenzie had agreed to coach the team this year.
“I was just nervous,” Coons, 37, said. “He’s a good guy. He is working very hard for us.”
The experience of coaching the team is like nothing else Mackenzie has experienced in a coaching career that spans more than 40 years and includes nine national championships.
“I’m getting more out of it than I’m putting into it,” Mackenzie said. “I’m a real rookie here with Special Olympics. I’m at Peg 1 at the bottom,” he said.
The team competed at the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games in June in Normal. Mackenzie’s 10-man crew was part of a delegation of more than 120 athletes from the West Central/Area 11, which covers Adams, Brown, Cass, Greene, Hancock, Pike, Schuyler and Scott counties.
Mackenzie, who retired from his QU post last August, was asked by Kevin Steinkamp, a local Special Olympics organizer, if he could help find someone to coach the older soccer team. The younger team is coached by Michael Nolinwinkler, but the older team needed a leader.
Special Olympics athletes have always had a place in Mackenzie’s heart.
“I’ve had Special Olympics teams introduced at halftime of Hawks games for many years,” he said. “Every time I see a challenged individual, I say a little prayer for them. I am very lucky to have six healthy children. I’m not doing anything now, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
The team gathered once a week at the Paul Dennis Soccer Complex to work on their skills. Mackenzie put the players through the same paces he put his national-championship winning teams through. View video of team’s practice.
At the beginning, Mackenzie had a hard time getting the athletes to understand what he wanted them to do. “It was just a communication issue. I was using words and phrases that are part of soccer lingo that they didn’t use to describe moves and strategies,” he said. However, that soon was resolved.
The Special Olympics team has much in common with his college teams, said Mackenzie. “They are competitors and they want to win as bad as the college players. Everyone gives everything he has all of the time.”
The team is filled with characters. Brothers Keith and Brian Flesner wear the shirts of their favorite players on the U.S. men’s national team. Keith represents Landon Donovan, a star for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. Brian wears the shirt of DaMarcus Beasley.
“Do you know why they call me Donovan?” Keith Flesner asked. “I’m unstoppable. No one can stop me.”
The team’s goalie, Charles Strieker, says that Flesner isn’t quite telling the truth.
“I can stop anybody,” Strieker said with a smile. “I’m the only one who can dive. I can stop more than just (Flesner).”
“We are having fun and laughing and moving around and touching the ball,” he said. “The guys are very concerned about each other and help carry gear for me.”
Mackenzie didn’t originally plan to go to state with the team, but he changed his mind after coaching the team for a while.
“I made a commitment with these guys, and I’m going to see them through,” he said. “I come home from practice, and I am pumped. I go over and open the back of my van, and a couple guys help me carry stuff to the field. They are so good about everything. I love them. Everyone should have this type of experience.”
The team made Mackenzie’s trip worth it by winning the gold medal in their division.
Michele Evans Henson, SOILL Director of Communications, also contributed to this story.