The unhealthy cost of coaching: Tom Conner’s story is one that we should all keep in mind

Tom Conner is in good shape and exercises regularly, so how did the the 35-year-old Bloomington High Football coach suffer a heart attack? He discusses it with staff reporter T.J. Berka, a story all of us could learn from.

“I don’t know how much stress from coaching impacted my heart attack, but it didn’t help. When you are trying to build a program, it’s natural to take on everything you possibly can yourself. We didn’t have a booster club when I started, so we were working to build that up and fundraise. Ultimately it’s your name out there, win or lose, so you want to make sure everything is exactly how you want it. That can cause stress and really take up a lot of your time.”Bloomington Bruins coach Tom Conner.

Below: Bloomington coaching staff …

By T.J. Berka, Staff Writer
As a physically fit, 35-year-old football coach that exercises regularly with his teenage players, Tom Conner isn’t exactly a person you would expect to be a heart-attack risk. But on March 25, as he was playing basketball after school, the Bloomington High School football coach felt sharp chest pains. Those chest pains turned into a series of heart attacks, with Conner being transported to Kaiser Permanente Hospital and having to be revived on two separate occasions. Conner is now resting comfortably at home and hopes to be back at BHS before spring practice, but is still startled by his life-threatening experience.

“It’s a scary thing and it’s not something I really thought could happen,” Conner said. “I work out, I’m in good shape, I enjoy what I do. I can’t believe that it happened.”

Conner’s exercise routine is likely what saved his life and is why he is recovering at a pace faster than his doctors had predicted. But as he rests at his Fontana home with his wife Racheal and two sons, Brandon (age 6) and Sean (age 4), Conner realizes that the stress from his job, and how to deal with it, is something that he has to work on to prevent a repeat incident.

“Now that I look back, there were some signs (of a heart attack),” Conner said. “I had high cholesterol and wasn’t eating right and had just started transitioning more to a Mediterranean diet. There was a lot of stress in my life not related to coaching – my mother was sick and we have had to go through the eviction process for a property we own in Victorville because the tenants weren’t paying rent. It all contributed.

“I don’t know how much stress from coaching impacted my heart attack, but it didn’t help. When you are trying to build a program, it’s natural to take on everything you possibly can yourself. We didn’t have a booster club when I started, so we were working to build that up and fundraise. Ultimately it’s your name out there, win or lose, so you want to make sure everything is exactly how you want it. That can cause stress and really take up a lot of your time.”

With every passing year, being a head coach at the high school level becomes more and more of a full-time, year-round job. Looked upon at one time as a way to mold the lives of young men and women in a fun environment, high school coaching has become a high-stress, high-impact job and more and more, it becomes a task that even less can handle.

“As an older coach, I read the paper every day and hear the same things when a coach retires – either it’s due to health concerns or because they want to spend more time with their family,” Colton athletic director and former football coach Harold Strauss said. “There used to be a lot of lifers in coaching – Dick Bruich, Don Markham, Chuck Pettersen, myself. I think Jim Walker is the only one left. The rest are young guys and the job has become much tougher now than when we started.”

When Strauss started his coaching career in the 1970s, it was for the most part an August to December pastime. But with grade checks, fundraising, the emphasis on scholarships and most importantly, the emphasis on winning, it has mushroomed well past that.

“There’s so much more of an emphasis on winning right now than there used to be, more than teaching and developing the kids for life at times,” Strauss said. “There’s a lot of pressure in this job that I don’t think should be there and it takes its toll. There are so many things that occupy your time as a coach and most coaches are Type A personalities, so it tends to pile up on you.”

The pressures of the job, and the long hours and quick, unhealthy meals, got to Strauss in February 2007, as he suffered a heart attack of his own. But even with that experience, the heart attack suffered by his close friend Conner was an eye-opener.

“You look at a guy like Tom Conner and it really makes you think. You have a young, 35-year-old guy who works out everyday and plays basketball with his kids suffering a near-life-ending heart attack. That’s not supposed to happen,” Strauss said.

“With an older, overweight guy like me you can say it’s because I didn’t eat right or exercise enough, but when a guy like Tom has issues, there’s more to it.”

It’s not just football coaches that have felt physical effects that comes from stress. Former Summit girls basketball coach Alexis Barile, who gave birth to twins 10 weeks prematurely in January, can relate.

Barile, who is married to Summit football coach Tony Barile, continued to serve as coach of the SkyHawks – who she helped build from scratch into a four-time league champion and two-time CIF finalist – up until going into labor. And she feels that the pressures of being a high school coach might have sped up that process.

“I really don’t know for sure but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Barile said.

“There’s a lot that goes into coaching basketball – from making sure the kids are making grades to uniforms to finding tournaments to developing the lower levels – and while I tried to delegate as much as possible, it’s not a natural instinct for a coach. You want to be involved in everything.”

And that’s exactly why Barile is stepping aside for the foreseeable future.

While her husband pledged to help out as much as possible to allow her to coach, Barile knew that it wasn’t something she could do.

“Tony said that he would be the mom during basketball season and I could be the mom during football season, but it’s just too much of a burden to do that and spend the time with your kids that you want to,” Barile said.

“Football is basically a year-round thing now and basketball is becoming that way. It’s too much of a grind with two newborn children.”

Strauss participates on the coaching-conference circuit during the offseason, with most coaches picking his brain about the double-wing offense. But Strauss would prefer to talk about something else.

“I look to talk about time management because that’s really the biggest issue (young coaches will) come across,” he said. “It isn’t just coaching – it’s doing grade checks and fundraising and doing everything in your power to get kids into college.

“Dealing with parents is also a big part of it – probably the biggest part – and if you don’t surround yourself with good people and delegate every once in a while, this job will kill you. It’s a great job, but it’s extremely demanding and becoming even more so.”

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  • Heart Attacks Are Warning Signs

    Coach Ruedaflores had a heart attack I believe when he was coaching at Harbor after he left Salesian my senior year. He just recently retired after almost being on the sideline all his adult life. He was never in the best shape but somehow he made it long enough to impact countless lives.

    The truth is body shape and personal appearance have less to do with heart attacks than “genes” do. African American men have greater risk factors than most. The late great Arthur Ashe has a heart attack at a very early age and he was about as fit and slender as a human being could be. As a young man i remember him on Mike Douglas breaking it all down, as only he could.

    My guess is God had bigger plans for Mr. Ashe than to let him spend so much time on the court. What an inspiration man he was to become.

    I recently took out some life insurance and my numbers were off the charts perfect, low sugar, great numbers, great rate rate yet I’m not what most would say is in perfect physical shape. Some times it’s a crap shoot and sometimes it’s the crap you put in along with stress.

    Stress also is a huge factor, not so much the amount but how you channel stress. Either way get checked out, get life insurance and learn to go with the flow. Going back to the sidelines might be a bit much unless he’s willing to take stock of what behavior is killing him, literally!

    Best of luck Coach.

  • Wow.. Although I can say I’m not surprised.

    After coaching high school for close to ten years and watching my close coaching friends suffer from stress related illness only ‘during the season’, the pressures can pile up on the shoulders of these caring individuals.

    Sending thoughts and prayers to the coaches and their familes..

    Great post.

  • sgvpride

    Its all about those check up’s, get those yearly physicals and see your doctor.