TRENTON, N.J. – Famed college basketball coach John Wooden observed that good coaches can change a game, but great coaches can change a life.
In the diamond, Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate Ryan Lewis forged such a bond with his varsity baseball coach Ryan Slaney, whose care and wisdom the 2012 graduate carried with him at age 17 into the U.S. Army. He served in Afghanistan and then Germany before returning stateside to work as a recruiter with the Army National Guard.
“[Slaney] helped me out a lot throughout high school. We stayed in touch,” Lewis, now 26, said.
Lewis’s younger brother now plays for the Caper Tigers. Lewis attends all the games and help raise funds for his old team. Slaney wants to bring him aboard as an assistant coach. But he’s 60 college credits separated from the dugout. And unless the law changes, Lewis won’t be more than an appreciated spectating alum.
Assemblyman Erik Simonsen has stepped up to the plate. After speaking with Slaney and Lewis, he crafted a bill (A5618) that would open up full- and part-time coaching opportunities for people like Lewis.
Regulations allow for only certified public school teachers or who hold a substitute teaching certificate to coach high school sports. Substitute teachers need 60 college credits to obtain their certificate. The bill would open those opportunities to honorably discharged veterans and reservists. They would have to serve in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces for at least four years.
“Discipline. Teamwork. Trust. Who better to impart these values to our young athletes than the proud men and women who honorably served our country,” Simonsen (R-Cape May) said. “These are traits that will not only make winners out on the field, but in life. We should make it easier to valuable community members to serve our students. Who better to coach our children than veterans? Let them coach! My bill makes that possible.”
Lewis hopes the bill gains traction and eventual passage so he can join the Caper Tigers as assistant coach next spring.
“Just because I didn’t go to college doesn’t mean I don’t have something to offer these kids,” Lewis said. “I want to show them that you can be successful with or without a college degree.”
Slaney agrees. He said while he understands the rules are in place to protect students athletes from those deemed unqualified, veterans like Lewis are overwhelmingly qualified to help these athletes become “better versions of themselves.”
“Youth sports, now more than ever are in need of good people who can serve as role models for the next generation to learn from as they develop in becoming better athletes and young adults. As a son of a USCG Veteran, I am well aware of the values that those in the branches of military acquire and adhere to in their daily lives. Having individuals such as Ryan Lewis who have already served their country and did so with pride and honor, who are willing to pass on those same lessons and values to the youth in our community, is invaluable,” Slaney said.
Michael L. Testa Jr. (R-Cape May) is sponsoring an identical bill in the state Senate.