It feels like just before my last blink I was handed my beanie at NSO. Now I’m set to graduate in a month. Eight semesters down, it’s kind of hard to believe. The only place to go now is off to “the real world.” It’s the same position my father was in, 41 years ago, with the Springfield College class of ‘73.
At that time, known simply as “the Hippie,” my pops was liable to be found jamming to the Grateful Dead, advocating for widespread civil rights, or relaxing at the seven-bedroom house where he and his cronies lived on Massachusetts Avenue. It was a disparate generation, but so too was theirs a time of transition into adulthood.
Amidst the purple haze and good vibrations, no one could have accurately predicted the future as it played out, especially the spot where one of my dad’s roommates would find himself in the final years of an extraordinary coaching career, battling for his life.
Bill Tompkins, a Physical Education major from Boothbay Harbor, Maine, has remained one of my dad’s loyal friends since graduation. I remember piling into the family’s station wagon back in the ‘90s to make the trip east for a visit. Trolling the shore for sea glass, seemingly infinite mackerel just waiting to be caught right off the dock, and lobster feasts highlight the memory of staying with Claw (Tompkins’ given nickname, after Maine’s most plentiful crustacean). What I didn’t realize at the time was how accomplished Claw was in his career.
Hired at Walpole High School in the fall of ’73, Claw remembers landing the job was basically a cinch. “The gym teacher I was taking over for was a Springfield College alum, and the principal and superintendent were in agreement that they wanted another Springfield College guy. We had the interview pretty much just so they could tell me I got the job,” Claw said, “and I haven’t left. That was 41 years ago.”
As a greenhorn PE teacher, Claw was immediately given an opportunity where his heart lay, in coaching. “[Walpole was] looking for a boys JV soccer coach. I’d taken a course in coaching soccer, and even though I’d never played myself, when I had the offer to coach in my first year of teaching – I wasn’t really going to say no to anything – so I took it,” commented Tompkins. Where Claw really wanted to be, though, was in the dugout, coaching the school’s baseball team.
After the season, he was offered the duty of coaching the school’s sophomore boys JV basketball team. Luckily for Claw, the varsity basketball coach – who also happened to be the JV baseball coach – had just become father of twins, his fifth and sixth children, and his plate was too full for a spring coaching affair. Another vacant coaching spot, another opportunity, so in his first year on the job, Claw made his baseball coaching debut.
With his career off and running, opportunities seemed to appear at every junction. Claw was able to connect with his athletes and peers in a way that all budding coaches hope to, while building a foundation for his vocation. When the varsity baseball coach stepped down after Claw’s fifth year at Walpole, he gave the reigns to my dad’s old roomie, and the rest is history.
At age 27, Claw took charge of the less-than-dominant Walpole Rebels baseball team. After five years, they had their first-ever Bay State League Tournament berth. Five years after that, Walpole took home their first league championship, and in the last 25 years, they’ve won the title 15 times. Claw, or Coach Tompkins as he’s known in the community, in his 36 years as the varsity baseball coach, has amassed an astounding record of 530-229, a 72 percent victory clip.
One of the winningest coaches in Massachusetts’ baseball history, Tompkins had never missed a game – or even so much as a practice – in his 36 years, until doctors found a football-sized tumor in his abdomen.
Two years ago, the 5-foot-5, athletically built, now-athletic director of WHS, Tompkins started dropping weight at an astounding rate. In just a few months, he went from 175 pounds to 155.
“I thought it was part of life; I thought my metabolism was changing or something,” Tompkins said. “I had some pain, and my side was a little distorted, but I thought it was because I’d been throwing and hitting in practice, that I’d just strained something, but I noticed that I could actually feel my intestines rolling over the tumor.
“Over April vacation, I lost 10 pounds in a week, and my wife told me I had to see a doctor.”
He obliged, but when he found out his primary care physician had unexpectedly died on a fishing trip, just finding a replacement proved to be a hurdle of its own.
I contacted six doctors, and no one would take me in. I was pleading to get an appointment. Finally I said, ‘I could be dying here, just let me make an appointment!’ and I got one. They ran some tests, took some scans, and told me I had a 10 x 7 inch tumor laying on my left kidney and going to my backbone.”
A plan was made of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, and surgery to remove it.
The first part of the chemo process involved a three-day hospital stay, and Tompkins missed his first practices in 41 years. The kids knew something was up.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to do was tell my kids I’m going to have to start chemo,” Tompkins remembers. “I said, ‘You know, I’ve missed some practices, but I’m going to try to coach and live my life as normal as possible. I might not be feeling well, but I want this to be a learning experience.’”
Tompkins, who prefers to be known as a teacher before a coach, decided to use what so many look at as pure hell – fighting cancer – as the most important lesson he’d ever teach.
At a Saturday practice before Walpole’s first game that Monday, Tompkins told his players, “‘When you get out in the world, you’re going to face challenges. I’m going to face the biggest challenge of my life right now, and I’m going to do everything possible to beat this challenge. I want to be an example for you guys, so when you get out in the world and face challenges, remember back to me. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to stay positive. You guys are going to be my therapy.’”
Throughout the season, Tompkins kept his positivity.
“I didn’t feel like I was going to die. I knew I was going to beat it. I kept saying to the kids, ‘I know I look different, but look at my eyes. My eyes are still the same. Listen to my voice; it’s still Coach Tompkins.’”
Tompkins completed four weeks of treatment over three months, which entailed four-hour hospital sessions Monday thru Friday. In mid-May, he missed the first half of a regular season game – the only innings he missed all year – not because of his illness, but because the city where he received treatment was on lockdown. That city was Boston, and the lockdown was to find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
He made it to the game by the top of the fourth.
Tompkins fought the effects of chemo all season: weakness, further weight loss, stomach sickness, but none proved as trialing as his battle with gout. A gout-swollen knee made him immobile and put him in the hospital. When it was looking like he was going to have to miss a game, “someone upstairs saw me, and we had three days of rain,” Tompkins said.
He was released the morning of the make-up game and took to the field. “I could barely walk, but I didn’t want to miss the game; I was showing these kids that I was facing a challenge,” Tompkins said.
When Tompkins lost his hair, the Rebels shaved their heads, but an act of solidarity at Walpole’s first Bay State Tournament game almost brought him to tears.
“My No. 1 pitcher was struggling. We were behind 5-0, so I go out to talk to him. I look down the home side of the field, and the whole third base line was all blue,” Tompkins remembers. “One of the girls on the soccer team who worked at Nike had had shirts made that said on the front, ‘Rebels with a Cause’ and on the back, ‘Strike Out Cancer.’ She sold the shirts for charity money, and everyone was wearing them. They sold between 750-1000 shirts. It touched me dearly.”
Tompkins’ Rebels came back to win that game, then won two more tournament games before falling in the semi-finals. They finished the season 19-4, and Tompkins finished chemo July 1.
Tompkins’ surgery was on August 26 at Brigham and Williams Hospital in Boston, and because of the tumor’s gargantuan size, the fact that it was wrapped around his kidneys, intestines and lying on his aorta, there was a vascular doctor on hand for any necessary blood transfusions. The majority of his doctors had never seen a larger tumor.
His procedure went unbelievably smooth, lasting only six-and-a-half hours, requiring no blood transfusions. With an expectation to remain unconscious in the Intensive Care Unit for three days, Tompkins awoke at 11 p.m. the night of the surgery, skipped ICU and went straight to Recovery. The entire procedure was anticipated to last 10 days but lasted only four.
Three weeks later, he was doing paperwork at WHS. At Thanksgiving he was working full time. On December 1 he was cancer free. Tompkins’ resolute positivity is a testament to how he’s faced every test, every game, every challenge in his life.
He’s a guy who knows how to find a way.
At Springfield his senior year, he took tap-dancing. Unable to buy tap-shoes, he nailed scrap metal to a pair of loafers and earned a C.
When he realized that his pint-sized body and vitiated knees were not that of a baseball star, he put his mind to work, turned to coaching, and complied one of the best win-loss records Massachusetts has ever seen.
It’s not his own victories that give him delight though; it’s helping future generations find theirs. That’s how it’s been since his first year at WHS.
“As a teacher, you don’t get rich, and as a coach, you certainly don’t get rich. You don’t do it for the money; you do it to work with the kids,” Tompkins says.
The education he received at Springfield – his strong values related to spirit, mind and body – are what’s helped him develop students over the years, in PE and on the playing fields, into well-rounded individuals.
“They’re not stuck in a classroom, having to raise their hand to ask a question. It’s like they’re free, and their personalities get to show out. [I] get to see these kids who just want to do something, can’t sit in the classroom, sometimes they have disciplinary problems or whatever,” Tompkins says. “It’s not all about learning out of books, but what can be learned about life, how to work with people or interact and teamwork and stuff. Then to have those people to come back and say, ‘Thanks coach, you helped me out,’ that’s worth all the money in the world to me.”
Tompkins, in all his years of coaching – which include the first 22 years of WHS girls soccer, reckons he’s coached well over 2000 games. To which, he smiles and simply replied, “That’s a lot of games,” eyes wide, head nodding.
He’s sent dozens of players to Division I programs and produced several professionals. As an AD, he couldn’t be more proud of, “one of the smallest schools in the league with 26 of the most competitive programs.”
As I – and I speak for my fellow classmates here – look to the future, I still have to ask, how will we ever accomplish as much as Coach Bill “Claw” Tompkins?
Coach Claw has advice:
“I think you guys graduating now have more of a feel for the real world than you think. You’ve got the technology; you know it’s difficult to get a job, and some people go to school and study for what they want to do but never end up in that profession.
“You want to have fun in life. You’ve also got to work hard and face your challenges. No matter what you do in your own social life, wake up and go to work or whatever you’re doing. If you do that, somewhere down the line in life, you’ll be successful.”