Georgetown College softball coach Thomas Thornton fondly remembers Abe Padilla, the cross country and track guru with whom he shared and office early in his Tiger tenure, as a strong persuader who “could convince an Eskimo to buy ice.”
One day, while watching donated and bargain-basement apparel fall out of his colleague’s storage closet, Thornton saw an opportunity to return the favor.
”I found a sweatshirt in there that was double-XL,” Thornton recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘I ain’t never seen a cross country runner who could wear this big of a shirt.’ So the man out of the goodness of his heart said, ‘Hey, Coach, take it.’ To this day I still wear it, and it’s been what, 20 years ago now? I think of him every time I put it on. It’s little things like that.”
Memories and certainly a few tears flowed freely Friday as peers and pupils reacted to news of Padilla’s tragic death. The longtime GC coach was killed when he was struck by a concrete mixing truck while walking along U.S. Route 421 in his hometown of Frankfort. Padilla was 72.
Thornton remembered the former United States Marine as friendly and frugal, two qualities that came in handy for someone hoping to perpetuate a non-revenue sport at an NAIA institution.
“I know what our budget is even now, but his budget was crap. He knew the ins and outs of how to raise money, how to save money,” Thornton said. “We both had a closet. Mine had bits and pieces, but his was full. And it was usually he would go to some store, and if they were selling out of something, he’d buy every shirt or sweatshirt they had and get them at 50 cents to a dollar a shirt, then put ‘Georgetown College Cross Country’ on them. That way the kids had something. He always had something new for them.”
Lucas Garnett, today the Tigers’ track and cross country coach, was one of those athletes for two years prior to Padilla’s retirement in 2008.
Two of Padilla’s catch phrases stayed with Garnett during his development into keeper of the torch, including a pearl of wisdom — “Push, pull, breathe” — that remains a riddle to ex-Tigers.
“To this day I don’t know if I fully understand what that means,” Garnett said. “But by God, whenever I heard it, I knew I needed to go a little bit quicker.”
Another frequent flier in the Padilla lexicon is one that racers and non-runners of all ages would do well to embrace in current, confusing times.
“I remember as an athlete he always told the team, ‘Have common courtesy.’ I’m not gonna lie. We made fun of that a little bit when we were together,” Garnett said. “But now that I’m in his shoes, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you need to have common courtesy.’ I don’t think I say that specifically, but I always preach to the team to think about others and how your actions will affect others on the team, or even others in general.”
GC football coach Bill Cronin, winner of more than 200 games in his NAIA hall of fame career, knew Padilla as a neighbor when his family first moved to town.
The Cronins lived for a time in the parsonage at Gano Baptist Church. Padilla and his family lived in the same area, and the children would play together in the church parking lot.
“He was such a great neighbor, such a genuine person,” Cronin said. “He was just one of those guys that believed in the traditional way of doing things. He brought his family up that way. He was a hard worker.”
Cronin said he rarely saw Padilla without tennis shoes on his feet, ready to go for a run at a moment’s notice.
The venerable gridiron leader also noted that Padilla built his program with sweat equity.
“Kids loved him. His players had a good interest in him, and he in them. He would treat them with a lot of respect, and then he could really get on them and push them. The kids responded really well to him,” Cronin said. “Often you would see him out running with them. I always thought that was impressive. But he always kept that line between them where they knew he was the coach.”
And if passers-by saw Padilla straggling at the back of that pack, it wasn’t a concession to middle age. There was a method to the madness.
“Almost every practice he would run with the team, but he always run with whoever our slowest person was,” Garnett said. “Something I always took from that myself is he wanted to make everyone on the team feel like they mattered, whether they were the best on the team going to nationals or trying not to get last at the meet. That kind of sums him up pretty well to me. He cared about everybody.”
Garnett grabbed the coaching reins from Todd McDaniel, who initially took over the GC programs after serving as Padilla’s assistant.
Not surprisingly, the mentor’s skills for stretching a dollar are still utilized today.
“Coach Padilla always loved a good deal. He was always trying to save money, and I see it in myself now quite a bit. He hammered that home, that whenever you can save some money on this stuff, then you have more to do some of this other stuff,” Garnett said.
Thornton said Padilla’s love for the college and its young people extended well beyond the borders of his team. Among the donations he solicited were textbooks, which he then distributed to students who were in need.
And retirement was only a relative term. Padilla remained available to exhibit his Tiger Pride and was never more than a phone called away.
“One year I was having trouble with girls running bases, and he’d come back to teach them how to run properly,” Thornton said. “He never asked for more, but he was always looking out for any kid out there. I hope a little bit of that comes across with the way I do things.
Garnett last saw Padilla on campus as the honorary starter for a 5-kilometer race at homecoming a couple years back. He often saw Padilla in Frankfort when the Mid-South Conference basketball tournament was played there.
“He was just a fun, lighthearted guy who loved the sport,” Garnett said. “I know he loved the school and the team and loved the kids. The whole thing, it sucks.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.