One of the things I cherish most about being a sports journalist is the opportunity to get to know people that I wouldn’t have met under most normal circumstances.
I like to listen to their stories of competition and perseverance. Some of them have the ability to inspire and make an impact on my life.
At the top of that list is former Washington Stealth coach Chris Hall, who I met when I began covering the National Lacrosse League team in 2011.
Covering the Stealth as The Herald’s beat writer was something that I considered to be one of my first big breaks as a young journalist.
There was just one problem.
I didn’t know anything about lacrosse.
Hall, who is known to most as C.H., quickly changed that.
The more I got to know C.H., the more I liked him. He became someone I considered a friend.
That made the news that I received this past Sunday all the more difficult to take. After battling throat cancer for more than three years, Hall passed away at age 64. I haven’t had the opportunity to see or talk to C.H. as much since the Stealth relocated to Langley, British Columbia and became known as the Vancouver Stealth in June of 2013.
The day the team announced it was moving was a sad day. Not only was a professional sport that I had grown to respect and love leaving town, but it also meant fewer opportunities to talk lacrosse with C.H.
The best part about covering the team was calling C.H. each week for the game preview story. I always had a few questions prepared that I would ask, but inevitably those would take a backseat to two guys talking about a sport they love.
One of us knew a lot more than the other.
It was truly unique. Everything I learned about lacrosse — literally everything — I learned from C.H. He always seemed to have the time and the patience to teach me anything I needed to know. He wanted me to feel comfortable with the subject matter I was writing about and I’m sure he wanted to see his great game reel in another fan.
He accomplished both goals.
In just a few short months I knew enough about lacrosse that I was actually able to talk about the game with him. He was still the teacher, but our conversations were becoming less about instruction and more about what each of us were seeing on the floor.
I also got the opportunity to see how C.H. interacted with his players and fellow coaches. It was yet another area where my admiration for him continued to grow. Simply put, I never met a group of players that genuinely cared about, respected and loved a man as much as those players did with C.H.
None of the players would want to admit it, but when Hall was forced to take a leave of absence prior to the 2012 season when his cancer was first diagnosed, the team struggled. After two consecutive NLL championship game appearances in the team’s first two years in Everett, including a championship in 2010, the Stealth had the worst record in the league in 2012. Hall returned to coach the team midway through the season, but it was too late to turn things around.
Like his players, C.H. wouldn’t want to admit that the struggles that season had anything to do with his absence. As a journalist covering the team, however, that would have been hard to believe. When Hall’s health allowed him to be back on the sidelines for the entire 2013 season, the Stealth once again went to the league’s championship game.
In four seasons in Everett, Hall led the Stealth to three NLL championship games and battled cancer.
His resume speaks for itself.
Of all the great experiences I had covering the Stealth, the best came in their final season in Everett. I was approached by Mike McQuaid, the team’s vice president of communications, about a story idea. McQuaid wanted me to go through a practice with the team and write about it.
In the NLL, practice time is extremely limited and I was nervous about approaching C.H. about the idea. I felt we had a great working relationship and I didn’t want to take advantage of that. But most of all, I didn’t want to do anything that would get in the way of the team being successful.
That said, McQuaid and I both saw the story as an opportunity to grow the game and get more people interested in the Stealth.
When I told him about the idea I think he was more excited than I was. He had ideas about how to get me involved and immediately went into coach mode.
Despite the fact that I had never picked up a lacrosse stick in my life, C.H. kept trying to coach me up. He would explain things so that I could understand them and he encouraged me throughout the practice.
When it was over, Stealth player Justin Salt, assistant coach Art Webster and C.H. all had a few laughs at my expense, but it was all worth it.
I realized even more about C.H. that day. He was a born coach. It didn’t matter if it was some of the best lacrosse players in the world, or a journalist that had never picked up a lacrosse stick, C.H. was all about helping people reach their maximum potential — both as a player and as a human being.
The last time I saw C.H. was in April. I went up to Langley for the team’s final home game to report on its first season in Canada.
I’m glad I didn’t know it was the last time I would see him. It would have taken away from one more moment with a man that had taught me so much about lacrosse, but even more about life.
A little less than two months later, C.H. resigned as head coach of the Stealth because his cancer had returned. In September, C.H. was honored as one of the game’s all-time greats when he was inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame.
Shortly after finding out about CH’s passing, I texted my mother, who was well aware of how highly I thought of C.H.
“Oh, so sad,” she responded. “I’m sorry because I know you feel very bad about that and how much you admire and respect him. So sorry for his family and all who feel as you do.”
As mothers often do, she knew exactly how I felt and what to say. For nearly two days I racked my brain for the right words to say about a man that I so admired and respected. It seemed so difficult. Then it hit me, it wasn’t that hard at all. It’s a sentiment that everyone who knew him has shared the past few days.
My life was better for having known you.
Rest in peace, my friend.
Aaron Lommers covered the Washington Stealth during the team’s four-year stay in Everett. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.