Longtime coach and volunteer remembered

The local sports community lost a great friend this month with the passing of Darrell Lotz. Darrell was a longtime supporter of youth and high school sports in Tolland and Ellington. He coached alongside TSD publisher Kevin Hayes for many years in Ellington and last season served as an assistant coach with the Ellington High boys basketball team.  The following was written by Kevin Hayesfor Darrell’s memorial service last week.

Courage.

The dictionary defines it with words. As a society we often define courage through visual images of soldiers returning from duty, a first responder rushing into the uncertainty of a burning building or even an athlete pushing through injury or difficult circumstance.

For me, the definition of courage took on new meaning nearly three years ago in the parking lot outside the Harry and Helen Gray Cancer Center at Hartford Hospital. As I reached across the front seat to give my friend our usual fist bump, he flashed a quick, confident smile and said “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.’’

And then off he went. Brown paper bag in hand – no doubt filled with snacks to get him through what would be a most difficult morning . As he walked through the big sliding doors and into the uncertainty of his first round of chemotherapy treatments I could not take my eyes off him. Growing up my heroes were figures like Carl Yastrzemski and Larry Bird.  But that day, and every day since, my hero has been Darrell Lotz.

Darrell finally lost his nearly three-year battle with brain cancer on Nov 7. But he never lost his will and he never lost his competitive spirit or dignity.  Darrell was diagnosed on Dec 7, 2010. In a letter he shared with me a while back, he wrote that the irony of the date was not lost on him. December 7 is Pearl Harbor day and for Darrell the diagnosis was not unlike an unexpected sneak attack.

But in his usual way, Darrell also found a bit of humor and resolution that day. You see December 7, as all true Celtics fans know is also Larry Joe Bird’s birthday. To Darrell, Larry Bird  always represented the notion that hard work and determination provide the most definitive path to success in any endeavor.

And so for Darrell, this was a sign that he better start working hard if he was going to find success in his new fight.

So much of what defined Darrell can be tied back to his love of basketball. And the lessons he  learned playing competitively his entire life served him so very well in his final three years. Darrell played on Ellington High’s 1982 NCCC championship team and actually returned to his alma mater last season as an assistant coach with the boys JV and varsity teams.

He did not make it through the entire season as his condition worsened and he had to leave the team in early January.  But those couple of months he spent back in the EHS gym, bouncing a ball and working with the young players had an enormous impact. Coaching he said, gave him two hours a day where he did not have to think about the unthinkable.

The day after Darrell passed away I received a note from Darlene Russell, whose son Troy was a two-sport athlete at Ellington High and was paralyzed in a swimming accident last year. Despite all that he was going through this past year, Darrell took the time to write a letter to Troy Russell. In the letter Darrell thanked Troy for being such an inspiration to him and to others for the way that he fought through the hours of grueling rehabilitation. Darrell said that on those rare days when thoughts of giving up crept into his head, he would watch You Tube videos of Troy at rehab and be motivated all over again.

One of Darrell’s other inspirations was former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano whose “Never Give Up” speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards is now legend. In that speech Valvano – dying of cancer himself – said there are three things we should all do every day; laugh, spend some time in thought and have your emotions move you to tears. If you do those things every day Valvano said, “That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.’’

These past few years have indeed been very special. Farewell coach and may you rest in peace.

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