A Coach for Life
About the Guest
A coach can be a powerful influence in the life of a young man. Dru Joyce knows. As the director of the Northeast Ohio Basketball Association and head basketball coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, he has been mentor to some of the nation's best young players, including LeBron James. Hear Dru tell how love for his son drew him into coaching.
As a head basketball coach in Akron, Ohio, Dru Joyce has been mentor to some of the nation’s best young players, including LeBron James. Hear Dru tell how love for his son drew him into coaching.
A Coach for Life
Bob: Before he was ever a successful high school basketball coach, Dru Joyce was a student athlete who had just found out that his girlfriend was pregnant and who realized his life was headed in the wrong direction.
Dru: It was not a moment that I’m very proud of, even to this day. I was in the little apartment that we had; and I was washing my face, honestly. I looked into the mirror and the Lord just kind of showed me who I really was—I didn’t like it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 26th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today how God got a hold of Dru Joyce’s life, turned him around, and prepared him to pour into the lives of thousands of other young men, as a basketball coach. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. So, I think this is accurate—I think if we were to go, today, to the halls of Ozark High School—down there by the trophy case, where the records are posted for the—
Dennis: I don’t think there’d be any record posted there.
Bob: You don’t think? You don’t think they’ve got it up there?
Dennis: You know, I haven’t been back to the gym since probably a couple of years after I graduated from college; but there’s no record / formal record book. But I have followed their basketball over the years.
Bob: You, at one point—and I assume it’s still the case today—you had the single-game scoring record for Ozark High School.
Bob: Forty-four points in a game.
Dennis: Forty-four points.
Bob: I’ve been out trying to do lay-ups in the driveway. I can’t get 44 points in one driveway session, and that’s with nobody guarding me. [Laughter] So I just bow down to you with that kind of a record.
Dennis: Well, it’s in that context that we want to welcome a true coach to the broadcast—Coach Dru Joyce joins us on FamilyLife Today. Coach Joyce, welcome to the broadcast.
Dru: Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here.
Dennis: Dru is the Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Basketball Association and the head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. In twelve seasons—or is it now thirteen seasons?
Dennis: In fourteen seasons, you have three state titles?
Dennis: And one national title; right?
Dru: Yes, yes.
Dennis: And he’s the author of a new book called Beyond Championships. I just have two questions for you—number one: “How many athletes, in those fourteen seasons, have you coached?”
Dru: Approximately I would say, generally, 15-20 a year—so we’re talking 300; yes.
Dennis: Close to 300; alright. The second question is: “Who was the best?”
Dru: The best player then and the best player now, maybe in the world, is LeBron James.
Dennis: This is the man you coached?
Dru: Yes, from 11 years old, all the way into high school—as the first two years, I was the assistant coach; and the last two years, I was the head coach—but I’ve been in his life since he was 11.
Dennis: In case there’s a listener right now who doesn’t know who LeBron James is.
Bob: Seriously! [Laughter] You think there’s somebody out there, who’s going, “Who are they talking about?—LeBron James?”
Dennis: You know, Bob, you’re a Spurs fan. Bob, what are you wearing? [Laughter]
Bob: I’m wearing my Spurs t-shirt. It’s the championship t-shirt from 2014, when the Spurs meat the Miami Heat and LeBron James! I had to wear it today.
Dennis: And he wore it for Coach—Coach Joyce! [Laughter] He’s a cool operator.
Bob: That’s right! [Laughter]
Dennis: His feathers were not ruffled—Coach Joyce just looked at Bob like he was a referee who made a bad call. [Laughter]
Introduce our listeners to who LeBron James is.
Dru: LeBron James, arguably, in today’s world of basketball, is the best player in the NBA. He has won four MVP trophies, and he has led his team to four straight finals. He did win two—they lost two—but he did win two.
Dennis: Who was one of the teams that he did beat?
Dru: San Antonio, I think, was one of the teams. [Laughter]
Bob: Yes, I think so—that’s right. [Laughter]
Dru: But we won’t mention that; you know?
Dennis: I want to read what LeBron James wrote in the forward to your book, Beyond Championships. He said: “As a young kid in Akron, Ohio, I was like a lot of other kids. I wanted to play basketball and hang out with my friends. So when Coach Dru asked me to play on his team, at the time, it was all about basketball; but looking back on it, I now know there was something far greater at work that made me walk into that dusty Salvation Army gym in Akron.”
He goes on to talk about how he grew up in a single-parent family and how you became the father, the mentor, the coach that he never had.
Dru: LeBron and his mother are very, very close. Over the years, he and my son became best friends. Because of that—their relationship—and then the opportunity to coach him, we grew a great relationship and experienced a lot of great things over those nine or ten years that I was actively involved in his life.
Bob: You have seen, as you’ve coached young men for more than a decade, how powerful a coach can be in the life of a young man, growing up. In fact, in a lot of ways, basketball is kind of secondary on your agenda to what you want to do in the lives of these young men; isn’t it?
Dru: Yes. Years ago, when I started coaching, I was just a dad who, like most fathers, wanted to be involved in his son’s life. My son loved basketball and he wanted to play, and I had an opportunity to coach. Once that opportunity grew into the travel team, we decided—I say “we” because there was another father or two that helped me put together the Northeast Ohio Basketball Association. We understood, at that very moment, that this was a ministry opportunity. It was an opportunity for us to live a Christian example in front of young boys, at a very impressionable age. We structured everything that we did around that idea.
Bob: I have to ask you—as I hear you even articulate that—I have to ask you about the family that you grew up in—about your mom and dad and whether you came to the convictions that you have today—was that something passed on to you, or was that something that you had to come to on your own?
Dru: In some ways, I was brought up in church.
My father didn’t attend very much—he attended some—my mother made sure that I attended. I think that, as I grew and I got involved in sports, I just saw other men / other dads—my father was never very much of an athlete and he really wasn’t involved—but other men were involved in coaching. I think that was where I first saw the father/son or even that adult mentorship opportunity.
As I grew and had children of my own, it was just that fatherly instinct—I just wanted to be involved in my son’s life. God took something that was very small and humble and He made it what it is. I never really thought about going beyond being that rec-league coach; but as the opportunities presented themselves, I ran to them, and grasped hold of them, and tried to do what I believed God would have me to do.
Bob: When you were a player / when you were a young man, was there a coach or two in your life that had a profound impact?
Dru: Yes. In high school—my coach at East Liverpool High, was a very small city, with not a lot of professional men / especially African-American professional men—one coach that I had in high school football and track—a young African-American man, just out of college. What I really appreciated about Coach Hernandez—he was just so open with us / he was honest.
Dru: He shared with us, and it wasn’t about the sport. It was those moments, when we were acting as kids and kind of thinking maybe in a wrong way—he steered us back and kind of made it clear to us that: “You’re part of something bigger than yourself here. You need to understand the opportunity that sports may give you.”
I appreciated that about him and wanted to emulate that lifestyle. So, honestly, that was my desire, graduating high school—was to go to college, get a degree, teach history, and become a football coach because that was my sport. I was a football player / I didn’t even play basketball.
I had one of those traumatic experiences—in ninth grade, I went out for the team and I got cut. What happened the next year—I go to the high school JV—junior high coach now becomes the Junior Varsity Coach. So I just took the assumption that it wasn’t for me and continued to play football, which, honestly, was my first love. I didn’t try out for basketball. It’s so funny. I went back, a number of years ago—a friend of mine was being inducted into the High School Hall of Fame. He asked me to introduce him. I had the privilege of saying to that coach, who cut me all those years ago, how he stunted my basketball growth. [Laughter] You know, kind of: “Look at me now! I’m a basketball coach.” [Laughter]
He took it well—we had fun with it. He was the Athletic Director and has since retired. He was a great man; but in that moment in my life, I just didn’t have anyone to say: “Hey, Dru! Go try it again.”
Dennis: And you could have used somebody—
Dennis: —a coach who believed in you at that point. You went all the way through high school and into college and kind of went the party route.
Dru: Yes. [Deep sigh] Yes, I went, my first year, to Ashland College. I went there to play football. I was a pretty good student—I wasn’t great, but was good enough that I was able to get a small scholarship, along with the grant aid. It wasn’t a bad situation; but, honestly, Ashland like—it was just too small. As I say in the book, I kind of had one foot inside the church and one foot outside—I took that route and wanted to go to where there were more kids, and bigger parties, and those kinds of things.
I went to Ohio University, and the lifestyle was pretty wild and crazy.
Dennis: The foot that was outside the church was headed in the wrong direction.
Dru: It kind of pulled the other foot too. [Laughter]
Dennis: Yes. And you made a mistake—
Dennis: —that ultimately, in the providence of God, resulted in something special. Share that story.
Dru: Yes, I was very much a womanizer. I had been involved with a number of different ladies at the time—three to be exact. I was full of myself / full of my ego. I was doing what I saw everyone else doing—but nothing positive—but in that time, I ran into one of the young women, who is now my wife of 36 years. You know, I pretty much felt like I had made a decision: “I’m going to stop all this playing around, and I’m going to be committed to that relationship.”
However, another of the young women told me she was pregnant. I was raised that: “If that happens, that’s a responsibility. You should marry the woman and take care of the child and raise the family—that’s what you do.”
Dennis: It was your responsibility, as a man. If you’re going to father a child, you’re going to be the child’s father.
Dru: That’s it. There was no second-guessing that. I shared with my wife, Carolyn, that this is what had happened. As much as I would like to be with her, this was what I had to do—this was what I had to do—there was no way around it.
Dennis: She was not your wife at that point.
Dru: No. She was not. She would want me to be very clear about that too—she was not.
So, anyway, the young woman and I went back to Ohio University for what would have been going into my senior year. I don’t know—honestly, to this day—I just realized that she wasn’t pregnant.
I don’t know the details, but I recklessly / very recklessly pushed her out of my life. It was not a moment that I’m very proud of, even to this day. The relationship ended, and she went back home.
I was in the little apartment that we had; and I was washing my face, honestly. I looked into the mirror and the Lord just kind of showed me who I really was—I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it; and I cried out to the Lord: “What have I become? Who is this person?!” I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I realized the hurt that I had caused a lot of different people in just living my own selfish way. I did what I only knew to do—I fell to my knees and I cried to the Lord to come into my life and save me—
—to help me along the way to become the man that He would want me to be because I had really made a mess of it, trying to be the man I wanted to be. In that moment, I accepted Christ.
Bob: There was enough spiritual foundation that had been paved in your life that, when the time came, you knew where to turn.
Dru: Yes. As I said, I had one foot in the church and one foot out. But I knew enough that we have a Lord and Savior and that He’s there if we choose to allow Him in. I made that choice in that moment.
Bob: Some people will pray a prayer like that in a foxhole situation, kind of like you were in, and then they forget the prayer they prayed a few weeks later. It stuck with you.
Dru: Yes. You know, honestly, the pain that I had caused the people—the young woman I was involved with—it impacted me. That just wasn’t who I was.
When I was in high school, the football / the sports—they grounded me. They kind of gave me my identity. When I went off to college and was no longer involved, I had nothing—no identity. So, I did what most kids do—you try to make some kind of reputation, if you will, or some reason for someone to like you or want to be around you. I just fell in with that crowd, and that’s what we did. It was that party lifestyle—the lifestyle of “Do as much as you can do for yourself, without regard to anyone,” at that point.
So, when I prayed that prayer, I knew that it was time for a change. As I looked around, the Lord had kind of made it so that it was very clear. You know, a lot of those friends, who had been with me in those, let’s call them “the wilder years,” were no longer around—they had either left school / flunked out of school—but they were gone.
I was kind of in a situation where, you know, I was stripped of all those things around me that would say, “Come back this way”; and I’m thankful for that.
Dennis: So you made a beeline, pretty quickly, to the second-most important decision you ever made in your life. You knocked on a door—and I thought: “Wow! That took some serious courage to go do what you did.”
Dru: Yes, I recognized that I loved the woman—her name is Carolyn.
Dennis: You had told her you’d gotten a girl pregnant—
Dennis: —and had broken off the relationship.
Dru: Exactly. This was a few months later—it didn’t happen just right away—but I had to build the courage to go. I wrote some letters that never got returned. I was going home for Thanksgiving break and I said, “I’m going to go.” I went, and knocked on her door. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Dennis: Her dad came to the door. [Laughter]
Dru: Yes, and you know, her dad didn’t give me too much—I wasn’t welcomed in. I was kind of—the door kind of opened, and I got a little bit of a look.
Dru: I tried to say, “Hi,” in a way that would be inviting; but there was none of that. They understood that I had hurt their daughter pretty badly—so they weren’t really happy to see me. In fact, her mother had encouraged her to move on. She was dating some other guy at the time. I just went in and, honestly, I just pleaded my case. I didn’t hold anything back—I didn’t clean it up. I said: “This is where I’m at. I know that who I was and, in some ways, still am, is not the man that I want to be. I want to be that man, and I want you to be in my life.”
Dennis: And she instantly welcomed you into her arms.
Dru: No! [Laughter] I wish it would have worked like that, but no! She was very, very cautious. In fact, in a lot of ways, I had broken her heart; you know? So it took a long time. I wrote many letters—from that point forward, I would write her. I say in the book that it would be great to see people have to write letters like we used to have to when we were young; you know?
Dru: Instead of a quick text, you’ve got to really put some effort into a page or two and, you know, try to share your feelings—[Laughter]—not a 140-character text. I wrote her; and after a while, the letters started returning. I’m just very thankful that her heart softened.
Dennis: And 37 years later—
Dru: Thirty-seven years later, we are still working at our relationship. We love each other, but it’s always going to be a work.
I don’t want anyone to think—and all of us know that’s what marriage is. It’s about—they say, “falling in love”—you know, we don’t ever really know exactly what that means—but, yes, 37 years later, with four grown children now and five grandchildren, God has just blessed us immeasurably.
Dennis: And as a coach, you know that one of the most powerful models you are to these young men you coach—the 250/300 young men that have gone through your program over the past 14 years—is to see a man committed to a woman, in marriage, for a lifetime.
Dru: Yes, you know, I playfully talk about my wife as my “queen.” That’s how I tell my guys—they know, “I’ve got to go home to my queen.” I want them to understand that the relationship is treasured. I let them know the impact she’s had on me.
I don’t want them to think she’s a trophy or just someone in the background. She’s involved, and she’s helped shape me into the man that I am. If they see anything in me that they want to emulate, a lot of it is because of her.
Dennis: Well, Coach, I think you’ve got a lot of parents, right now, across the country, looking up their GPS system to go: “Where is Akron?” and “Where is St. Vincent-St. Mary High School?”
Bob: “How can I get my son in that program?!”
Dennis: “How can I play for that man?”
Dennis: I’ll tell you what—I just commend you for—not your record, although I love it that you’re winning and I know you do, too—but that you’re anchored in the right place. You’re teaching the next generation where to find their harbor and where to anchor as well.
There’s more to this story that we need to tell, but I want to encourage listeners to get a copy of Beyond Championships because there are a lot of life lessons in here that I think parents could pass on to their kids.
Bob: Well, that’s so often the case with sports. There are life lessons you learn, whether it’s on the basketball court or the football field—lessons you learn that apply to every aspect of our lives. In fact, our colleague, here at FamilyLife, Jeff Kemp, who played quarterback in the NFL, has written a book called Facing the Blitz, where he talks about lessons he learned as a pro quarterback that apply in marriage / apply in all aspects of life.
Of course, Coach Dru Joyce, who is our guest here today, has written a book called Beyond Championships: A Playbook for Winning at Life. We’ve got copies of it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “GO DEEPER.” The information you need to order the book, online, is available right there.
You’ll also see information about how to order Jeff Kemp’s book, Facing the Blitz, if you’d like a copy of that. Or you can call if you have any questions or if you’d like to order the books by phone: 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I’ve been thinking today, as we’ve been hearing Coach Joyce’s story, Dennis, about something that you say often—which is how central home and family are to who we become—to the kind of people we turn out to be / the life choices we end up making. It is at home where so much of life is determined. That’s one of the reasons why we are so passionate about wanting to help build stronger, healthier marriages and families through this ministry.
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Now, tomorrow, we are going to talk more with Coach Dru Joyce about coaching student athletes. In fact, we’ll hear about some of his years coaching his most famous student athlete, LeBron James—that all comes up tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today
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