ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
As head baseball coach at Tabor College for 18 seasons, Gary Myers’ was the one to decide when the time was right to pull his ace pitcher.
This spring, Myers made his hardest coaching call yet-to take himself out of the game.
Myers announced in late May he would be retiring from Tabor athletics and teaching after 23 years. His decision wasn’t a concession to age-he’ll be only 56 when he celebrates his birthday later this month.
Instead, Myers made this decision as he has made other coaching decisions through the years: by determining what is best for the team.
Myers, who has been battling Parkinson’s disease for the past five years, felt his illness was affecting not only his personal performance, but the overall success of the athletic department he has faithfully served for more than two decades.
“I felt that when I had to go out and meet new recruits, or stand in front of a big classroom, I was not comfortable doing that as much as I needed to be,” he said.
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Myers’ impact on Tabor athletics has extended far beyond the baseball field. He came to Tabor in fall 1978 as head baseball coach, but also as head women’s basketball coach and assistant football coach.
Combining duties has been a hallmark of his Tabor career. Myers’ resume includes four years as head women’s basketball coach, 18 years as head baseball coach, five years as head football coach and 10 years as an assistant in football.
From 1988 until 1999, he was Tabor’s athletic director. He has been associate athletic director since 1999.
“Gary has been willing to do what a number of people, historically, have done in the athletic department, and that is to step into different roles to meet the needs of the college,” said Don Brubacher, current athletic director and a long-time associate in the department. “That indicates a willingness to take on new challenges and do more work in a lot of cases because he had new responsibilities.”
The most visible payoff for Myers’ work was in baseball, where his team won four KCAC titles in the early 1990s. Tabor captured its first conference title in 1982 with a team Myers recruited and developed-but he left it in the hands of another coach when he was appointed head football coach for the 1981 season.
Myers smiles when he says his five years as head football coach-including a one-year interim assignment in 1990-gave him the mixed distinction of winning and losing the most games of any coach in the program’s history. But he’s proud of a school-record five-game winning streak one of his teams achieved.
As athletic director, Myers oversaw the construction of the Campus Recreation Center, which has been a boon to the department as an additional practice facility. He also initiated the college’s athletic-training program, Hall of Fame, and the Bluejay Honor Roll, which recognizes the classroom achievements of student-athletes.
Though he doesn’t promote the notion, Tabor’s baseball field stands as a monument to Myers’ longterm dedication to that particular sport and to the college in general.
“Gary basically built that baseball facility singlehandedly,” Brubacher said. “He raised money to improve the facility, he has worked on it tirelessly himself. It is really through his personal efforts that the baseball facility has been developed.”
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For all those accomplishments, the one Myers’ raises to the top of his list is watching the personal growth of the athletes who have come through the program.
“The most satisfying thing is when you see the lives of young people change, when they go off and become successes and good Christian parents,” he said.
Likewise, Myers has experienced his share of losses on the field through the years, but the ones that have hurt the most are the student-athletes who left the college without visible changes in their lives.
He also regrets the premature departure of student-athletes who had a lot to contribute to the school and the athletic program.
“I think when you have good kids who fit in and for some reason they don’t return, it’s like taking a piece of your heart and cutting it out,” he said. “You build programs on kids coming back and the experience they gain and the leadership they give. It’s tough to see kids who have all that, but then decide the grass is greener somewhere else.”
Myers’s career choice was significantly influenced by his experience as an athlete at Spring Arbor College in Michigan.
“It really helped me mature in my Christian faith,” he said. “I just think athletics really play an important role for developing young people to go out and serve the community and are part of local churches and school systems.”
Myers first heard about Tabor from a Spring Arbor roommate, Max Terman, who was teaching natural-science courses there. Terman called to encourage Myers to interview for coaching openings in the women’s basketball and baseball programs.
“That sounded like something that would be right down my line,” Myers said.
Over the years, Myers said he developed a que cera, cera attitude about winning and losing.
“What I tried to do is prepare the team as best as I possibly could,” he said. “Once the game started, what will be, will be.
“As a coach, I always felt my No. 1 goal was that we wanted to develop a team,” he added. “If you’re not a team, you’re not going to accomplish much. Then, after that, to reach our full potential as a team. If you do those two things, winning and losing are going to take care of themselves.
“You can get all wrapped up in winning and losing and forget about a lot of things that are far more important,” he added.
Myers has encountered those “far more important things” in the lives of his players through the years, but he and his family experienced it profoundly in 1996, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s only a few months after his wife, Dianne, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I think it was more difficult dealing with Dianne’s cancer,” he said. “From what I could find out, Parkinson’s doesn’t necessarily shorten one’s longevity, but it shortens the quality of one’s life. I knew what I had and I could deal with it. It really wasn’t life threatening.”
Dianne’s cancer has since gone into remission and she will be working full-time in the local school system this fall. Her employment has helped make Gary’s early retirement financially feasible.
Myers downplays the impact of his illness.
“I hope it hasn’t changed my life too much,” he said. “I realize it’s something I have to deal with. It bugs me because my left hand shakes and my mouth shakes some, but I realize there are a lot of people who are a lot worse off than I am.”
Brubacher said Myers tried hard to keep the Parkinson’s from affecting his work.
“I don’t think any of us understood, the last two years especially, how difficult it has been for Gary, how much he battled his illness and what a strain it has been for him to do business as usual,” Brubacher said.
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Still, Myers admits Parkinson’s is the only reason he is retiring. He would have preferred simply to reduce his workload, but decided complete retirement was necessary for the good of the department.
“In order for us to hire somebody new to take my place, we have to have a (full-time) job for them,” he said.
In this new season of his life, Myers said he plans to enjoy his grandchildren-and continue to contribute to Tabor athletics as he can.
“I’ll probably be helping with football this fall, if Tim (McCarty, head coach) wants me,” Myers said. “It may be a volunteer position, but we need the coaches.”
That response does not surprise anyone who knows Myers.
“Gary has invested the major portion of his professional life to Tabor,” Brubacher said. “He has been willing to work in a variety of capacities to benefit the college and the athletic department. He has made a huge contribution to the college and the athletic department over his 23 years here.”
Though he would prefer good health and a longer working career, Myers said he is looking forward to this new season in his life.
“I hope it is a season of being available to see what the Lord wants me to do,” he said. “I think I can keep busy. But I hope it will be being busy with things I want to do or that the Lord wants me to do.
“We’ll see what happens.”