J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Friday, November 4, 2005

A novel approach

Craig Ewing has put much of himself into making Aquinas a highly envied and scorned soccer power.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star


Craig Ewing is perched on top of his desk, wearing a tan dress shirt, a patterned tie and slacks. His reading glasses rest easily on his nose as he peruses the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for maybe the 30th time.

 

Gatsby was the first book Ewing ever loved, and now, decades later, he discusses its intricacies with 25 juniors in his English class at St. Thomas Aquinas.

 

Ewing can feel the young minds churning, trying to process this Jay Gatsby character. Is Gatsby likable? They can't decide, especially after he didn't reveal his knowledge about the death of an innocent woman.

 

Ewing is a soccer coach, yes, but long before he took to the sidelines, this kind of academic dialogue was his lifeblood.

 

"How can you side with Gatsby when he knows that Daisy ran somebody over with her car?" a boy asks.

 

"Good question," Ewing responds. "Most of the things Gatsby does are wrong. But I think he's heroic because of this vision he has."

 

The students aren't buying it.

 

"People that follow all the rules and dot all the I's, that's nice," Ewing explains, "but it's not the American Dream."

 

Arguing on Gatsby's behalf is natural for Ewing. He shares Gatsby's romantic ideals. But, like Gatsby, there are things about Ewing that people find hard to grasp.

 

Maybe they can't stand his ostentatious nature or his howling laughter when his Aquinas team scores a goal. Maybe they can't understand how his love for teaching trumped his family life and changed his relationship with his son.

 

Ewing, 55, cautions the class not to decide about Gatsby too early in the book. Reserve judgment, he says.

 

"It's called The Great Gatsby," he says. "Not The Jerk Gatsby."

 

There are many in Kansas City who would call Ewing a jerk. He'd prefer it if they would allow him the same courtesy as Gatsby and at least hear the whole story.

 

***

 

For Craig Ewing, the oldest of four children, life was already planned. He would take over his father's tile business, where he worked in the summers.

 

His Ward Parkway upbringing sent him to the University of Kansas, where he would major in business. But this was the late 1960s, and Ewing already was listening to the voices of his youth, the words of JFK and the music of his generation.

 

Ewing sat in his freshman English class, where he first read books like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Gatsby.

 

"Those are books that just grab you," Ewing says. "They change you."

 

As Ewing puts it, he fell in love with English. Soon, he'd fall for writing poetry. By his junior year, he was an English major.

 

"It was the Beatles generation," says Roger Ewing, Craig's father. "Devoting your life to a business almost became a selfish endeavor. That entire generation was almost conscripted to devote themselves to higher ideals, social contributions of some kind."

 

After leaving graduate school at Kansas with a teaching degree, Ewing joined the Peace Corps. He spent a year in Guatemala planting vegetable gardens in small villages to improve the children's diets.

 

At night, the Guatemalans would play soccer with a rag ball, and Ewing played the sport for the first time. He was 23.

 

"What I really love about it, even today, is that it just keeps moving," Ewing says. "To me, that's attractive in almost everything I do."

 

It's why Ewing loves teaching; the students are ever-changing. He returned to Kansas City in 1976 after briefly teaching in Jackson, Miss., to teach at Bishop Miege. He taught for six years before becoming an assistant soccer coach in 1982.

 

"I wanted to be a teacher first," Ewing says. "I never really pursued coaching."

 

Within five years, he was the head coach at Miege.

 

"If I'm going to do something," Ewing says, "I'm not just going to be some figurehead. I started playing indoors with friends, and I'd work like 18 camps in the summer."

 

Aquinas opened in 1988 in the growing area near Pflumm Road and College Boulevard. There were 300 applicants for 28 teaching positions. School president Blake Mulvany hired Ewing to be one of two language-arts teachers. He would also coach soccer.

 

***

 

Every teacher or student who has walked through the Aquinas halls has heard Ewing's unreasonably jolly laugh. If it weren't for the nasal quality of the laugh, Ewing could be Santa Claus.

 

"He always likes to tell a joke," Aquinas goalkeeper Casey Charpentier says, laughing. "It isn't always the best joke. Nobody else in the class would be laughing, but you look at him and you can't help it."

 

The laugh is the essence of Ewing. His enthusiasm is infectious.

 

"The more he was around kids in the classroom," Mulvany explains, "the more they wanted to be in the things he was involved in.

 

"I ran several different schools, and I've seen a lot of educators over the years. He has to be one of the finest teachers I've ever seen."

 

Twelve kids showed up for soccer tryouts for JV and varsity that first season. Ewing went home that day and called every boy in the school directory and doubled his roster. Those first years of Aquinas soccer were trying. Ewing doesn't like to lose at anything.

 

But by the program's fourth year, 1991, Aquinas finished third at state.

 

"Once he gets totally occupied," Ewing's father says, "he has incredible concentration powers. It preempts almost everything else. It's that desire to excel to the extreme, to be the very best you can be. That concentration probably cost him a marriage."

 

The early years at Aquinas hurt Ewing's young family past the point of repair. His oldest son, Eric, was 4 when Ewing and his wife divorced.

 

But Ewing kept moving forward as always. The guy who didn't know what soccer was at 23 won his first soccer state championship at 42, in 1992. Aquinas would win the next four, and the Saints were often nationally ranked.

 

Ewing did extensive research in team-building during the mid-'90s, going to workshops all over the country. He started doing biweekly open forums with his Aquinas teams.

 

Ewing picked up Aquinas' corner kick - which averages more than a goal per game - from Alec Mahailovic, an assistant coach on the 1994 U.S. World Cup team. Eventually, he'd even take his boys to play in England.

 

Like in the classroom, Ewing's soccer program thrived on the exchange of ideas.

 

"Craig is a guy who loves to hear what other people think," says Chuck Hammons, Ewing's assistant coach since 1994. "He values opinion. In the end, he makes up his own mind. No one has a better sense of the game than Craig. He's the Lou Holtz of soccer. He could take 11 guys off the street and figure out the best way to put them together."

 

***

 

In every great American story, the protagonist faces a challenge, and he must learn something about himself along the way to overcome it.

 

For Craig Ewing, that time is now. But it started in the fall of 2000.

 

Eric had been playing soccer since he was 4, always with the idea he would one day play for his dad at Aquinas. Eric was a freshman starting on the varsity that fall.

 

"It was kind of his dream," Eric says. "He had it ingrained in my head for a long time."

 

Little did Craig know, but there was something boiling inside of Eric, something that had been dormant since his parents' divorce. In seventh grade, Eric started drinking. Then in eighth grade, it was marijuana. His parents knew, and they would punish him, but the situation didn't seem out of control.

 

After that first soccer season, Craig was teaching his early-morning class when he was called to the principal's office. Eric had drunk an entire bottle of vodka that morning before school and had stumbled into the pond near Aquinas. He was soaking wet when Craig saw him.

 

"It was the saddest moment going into that office," Craig says. "How could it be this bad?"

 

Since that day, Eric's life has been in constant flux. After being expelled from Aquinas, he went to an inpatient treatment center in Texas, then to Blue Valley Northwest. On his first day there, he befriended two dealers. Eric and Craig battled constantly about his drug use.

 

"A lot of the ideas he had about me, the goals, the dreams, they were all ripped away pretty fast," Eric says. "He was trying to get a handle on what was going on."

 

Eric went back to Aquinas to begin his sophomore year, but he failed a mandatory drug test and was expelled again. Eric was sent to an alternative school in St. Louis, where he would finish his last two years of high school while getting treatment.

 

Gone were those four precious years Craig had always imagined. Gone was his chance to influence his son as he had so many other kids.

 

Eric, now 20, was sober for his first three years in St. Louis, and he began to think about why he was an addict.

 

"I was pretty angry inside," Eric says. "A lot of it was growing up, stuff before the divorce and after the divorce. I was just angry for a long time."

 

Eric relapsed again six months ago. He left the program and was living out of his car doing heroin. He was arrested and went to jail for six days. Eric went through his heaviest recovery yet but says he feels more secure than he's ever felt before. He says Craig is just trying to be supportive.

 

"He's always been very invested," Eric says. "I think the problem was that some of the ways he was invested weren't working for him too well. He had to find a new way to get invested. He's just as proud of me as ever. I think a lot of it was both of us finding ways to change."

 

Eric attends junior college in St. Louis, where Craig visits him once every three weeks during soccer season and every other week in the offseason. Craig has started going to groups for parents of addicts to get help with his own healing.

 

Eric's addiction has forced Craig to look back and put the future on hold.

 

"I always wonder, did I give my kid a bad deal?" Ewing says. "I was so looking forward to those years, knowing I'd have four years that most fathers would never get. I don't know if that's selfish.

 

"It wasn't good for my son. If I could do it over again, I would probably not have coached him."

 

***

 

In mid-October, the week after Aquinas lost two games to St. Louis teams, the e-mails poured into Ewing's inbox. In one day alone, he counted 20, and they weren't exactly understanding.

 

It's common knowledge that lots of people enjoy seeing Ewing's teams lose. It doesn't happen often. Ewing's boys have won eight state titles, his girls seven.

 

But it's not just winning that has created this bitterness. Up 4-0 in the first half over BV West in the Kansas 5A state quarterfinals on Tuesday, he argued vehemently against an offside call. That doesn't go over so well with opposing coaches, parents and kids.

 

"Why does he have to yell?" a BV West player mumbled.

 

"One of my downfalls is that I have a very loud voice," Ewing says. "Parents can hear it, too, when I say something about their kid."

 

Ewing is not going to control his enthusiasm so that more people will like him. He is not going to stop posting biased game stories and videos of his team's goals on their Web site.

 

But he will devote significant time to promoting soccer in Kansas City. When other teams are having great seasons, Ewing makes sure they get their due in the national poll. When a local player deserves All-American consideration, it's Ewing that makes it happen through his role with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

 

"I don't think people realize all the good he does for Kansas City," BV West coach Alex Aiman says. "He goes out of his way to promote Kansas City soccer. So many people would bash him, and they're kicking themselves. They don't see what's behind the scenes. They're really just jealous. Their programs just aren't as good."

 

Miege coach Joe Huppe says: "He's the bad guy, and he likes that role. I know people that hate him. He's probably the Carl Peterson of soccer in Kansas City."

 

Is Craig Ewing likable? He wants to be.

 

"It's like the Yankees," Ewing says. "If you're very successful, you're going to create a lot of enemies. You don't mean for it to be that way, but that's the way it works out. I have a flaw, I think, where I want to explain myself. If someone hates me, I want to say, `Now why?'

 

"I'm OK with what I do."

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