Everyone has had that one teacher, that one person, who stands out above the rest and for many Elsberry Students, Ezra Tillotson has proven to be more than just an inspiration, but a guiding hand.
When Tillotson started in 1994, he said he had taken on a great deal of activities, to a point where it became a little much and he felt like he was running in place.
“At the end of the year I went to the principal and told him I thought I could do two things moderately well, but I can’t do all of this,” said Tillotson. “He asked what I wanted and I said I would like to keep academic bowl and Cross Country. That was around the same time Coach Wheeler had left.”
During his first year as a cross-country coach, he only had three girls, who started and ended the season, Emily Hensley, Patricia O’Brien, who was a freshman then and Nicole Giamonco, who had spent the previous year in the cancer hospital.
“One of the things I learned very early on, it seems like the kind of people that like the distance running are people who like to be alone in their head,” said Tillotson. “They don’t need to have a lot of people around them. Often the ones that are the best are the ones who tend to be academically successful also.”
He added that it wasn’t just at Elsberry he noticed this trait, but throughout all schools.
Tillotson was a runner himself, who had run a lot of miles until he broke his foot the second time. According to him, he just kind of gave it up after that, but I still liked the run.
“One of the things I like about it, is the guts and the courage; you never get a relief. You go out there and fall down, you don’t get up you bounce up. If you can’t run, you crawl, you go,” said Tillotson. “I don’t treat people like that in practice, because I don’t want anyone to come away maimed, but I want them to be dog soldiers. You have to be mentally, physiologically and physically tough to do it.”
In fact, he said he has seen a lot of kids take off their shoes and have blood soaked socks.
“Now it’s not something anyone should have let happen, but there’s a lot of running so it’s going to happen,” said Tillotson. “The focus has not always been on beating somebody else, but rather beating your own time. So the first person your competing against is you yesterday and if you push hard enough then the rest kind of takes care of itself.”
“I have been lucky and I don’t know if this is false modesty or anything like that, but I feel good about being apart of the teams,” said Tillotson.
Every year since 1998, Tillotson has taken his team to state and up until this past season, they have managed to finish in the top 10. This past season they finished in 14th place. However, to walk into the Elsberry High School Gym, anyone can see his hard work, as nine of the 14 flags hanging have Coach Ezra Tillotson written across them. Whether it was for cross-country or the academic bowl.
“What I have [seen these kids] do and I’ve told them for years, is just courageous,” said Tillotson. “You have some people that will never run outside the comfort zone and others that will. But the ones who do best, whether they do well at it or not or whether they get recognition for it or not, travel on the outside edge of crisis, where every step is a conscious decision; where it’s a personal fight.”
One motto that Tillotson say’s he try’s to follow is that overcoming ones self is the path to growth.
“I’ve had great kids, I’ve had great support. In fact, I’ve never asked anything of the administrators for any of my programs that they didn’t come through for me,” said Tillotson. “I’ve almost always had tremendous support from the parents and that’s worth a great deal. There has only been a couple times where I’ve had the unknowing parent come in and try to provide their coaching expertise. I’ve just been really fortunate. “
When asked who he attributes all his success to, he gave all the credit to the high school students, because they did all the running, as he put it.
“The last two years I’ve had the opportunity to work with Errol Spratt and that has just worked out so well,” said Tillotson. “He’s been a huge amount of help.”
Over the years, Tillotson has had several memories stand out for him, but none more so than his meet in 2002, where high winds, blown down tents and not one healthy runner on the line, still pulled off a top State finish.
“Shortly after the gun goes off, I see one of my runners grab the back of their leg and began limp running. I ran across the hairpin, to get ahead of where she was and I was getting ready to reach out and tag her, to disqualify her and get her off the track,” recalls Tillotson. “She’s running towards me and at the same time saying, crying, please don’t, please no. So I backed up and got off the track.”
What Tillotson say’s he remembers the most, isn’t the fact that she still came in fourth, but her dedication and commitment for herself and her team.
“I had another runner hit the gravity well during that same event. She hit the well, landed almost face first, crawled about 12-feet, got up, staggered and took off. What about all that? I still wonder to this day, should I have taken Lauren Krueger off the track? For her long-term well-being. Physically?” asked Tillotson. “Maybe. Mentally, physiologically, that girl may have burned my house down had I taken her out. And that’s just one example of the great kids I have had over the years. Gutsy, dedicated, courageous and tough kids.”
Tillotson said there was another year, where all he had was Hannah Spratt, who was a freshman runner and the only varsity girl on the team. What he said he remembers about her, was she still qualified for State but recruitment was thin.
“In 98 when our girls won, I really thought that the next year, recruiting would be easy. I thought I might have 15-20 girls come in, maybe even enough for a team. But it didn’t happen,” said Tillotson. “This year I lose Anne Marie Bufford, who’s been with me since the seventh grade and I lose Anne Heintzelman, who’s been with me the last two years.”
Although he is a little sour by the loss, he said he is thrilled to see what some of his up and comers will be able to do for the program; one in particular.
“I will get Faith Zimmerman and I think she’ll be a big help to us. I hate going to state when you only have five runners; I hate going through the season when I only got five runners, that’s a heart attack,” said Tillotson. “If anybody gets sick or hurt, your doomed. I have places where we qualified State trophies and we don’t show up in EMO because we didn’t have a team; we ran three kids. I’ve danced through the fire.”
At the end of the day, the only regret Tillotson say’s he holds is the wonder if he could have done more.
“Nothing is ever perfect,” said Tillotson. “Like Napoleon said, ‘No strategy survives first contact with the enemy.” It’s not like, in many things, where you have a plan and you can integrate it at different times, because different people require different plans. It’s just always changing. I can think of places where I made mistakes in the way I did things. But I would say, truly, I have been lucky.”