WOONSOCKET — It’s a recent Friday morning and George Briggs is enjoying life.
The reason? He’s in his element, albeit with a different clientele.
A group of senior citizens – a mix of men and women – have come to World War II Veterans Park as part of the city’s three-days-per-week walking club. It’s a development that caused Briggs to don the same coaching hat he proudly wore during his 46 seasons in charge of the Woonsocket High cross-country and track programs.
Only this time, Briggs isn’t asking the participants to shave valuable seconds off their times with an eye towards the championship meet season. These days, the goals in terms of sheer improvement are far more modest.
For starters, let’s see if they can add an additional lap around the park. If your walking shoes allow for two trips around the premises, why not challenge yourself and see if a third lap agrees with you?
Isn’t that the true spirit of coaching? To inspire and motivate to do your very best? To look beyond the so-called barriers?
To Briggs, it doesn’t matter if you’re young or young at heart. There’s still some form of coaching to be done.
Asked by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to serve as the point person of this walking club, Briggs jumped at the chance to oversee a program that he hopes can continue into the winter months. He went in understanding that many of the coaching methods that were part and parcel during his long tenure with the Novans would not be applicable. For starters, there’s no class or state meet on the horizon.
The seniors who are part of Briggs’ legion of faithful walkers mirror the ninth-grade runner who came out for the cross country team only to have trouble with the most basic of things, say properly tying their shoes. By the time their senior year rolled around, that same teenage is posting a sub-17-minute time in a 5K race.
Sitting on a park bench, Briggs smiled as he talked about the rapid progress of one particular senior walker. In a nutshell, this individual has made the kind of strides that resemble the freshman cross-country runner who stuck it out and was kindly rewarded by the end of his or her high school career.
“We had one person who only did one lap when we started. Depending on the weather, he can now do 3-4 miles,” said Briggs. “The more laps you can do, the better you feel about yourself. Your self-esteem is up there.”
Now 76 and by his own admission doing very well health-wise, Briggs is fully onboard with the belief that a senior who comes to walk as part of a group is receptive to the message passed on down by the coach.
“It’s a win-win situation. It’s not just about physical exercise. Walking is probably the best thing a senior can do, but there’s a social aspect that I think is just as important,” he said. “Think about it if you’re a widow or a widower. You wake up and what do you got? A cup of coffee followed by CNN all day long. The news repeats itself every 20 minutes.
“As a high school coach, I never tried to use a critical word,” added Briggs. “I liked being on the winning bus. We weren’t here to simply play, but there are other parts to sports that are equally important … helping someone feel good. If you can do that to another human being, particularly these seniors who might be putting on too much weight or are isolated, it’s a good feeling.”
Whether it was answering to the late George Nasuti or someone else, Briggs grew accustomed to answering to an athletic director at the high school. The more you think about this walking venture and how it originated, the more it doesn’t seem as far-fetched to think of Mayor Baldelli-Hunt as a de facto AD who has entrusted her coach to put it all together.
“I give the mayor a lot of credit,” said Briggs, noting that Director of Human Services Linda Plays should be noted for her active role – an assistant AD if you will.
A 1963 graduate of Woonsocket High School, Briggs says he’s thrilled to no end to be back coaching in his hometown. His affiliation with Villa Novan athletics ended two years ago. A retired educator who taught for 35 years in the Woonsocket school system, Briggs these days also keeps his coaching skills sharp as the head coach of the Smithfield Middle School cross country and track programs.
“I’m proud to live here,” he said while looking out at a park that’s become a vibrant mecca of activity – from basketball courts, to a refurbished youth baseball field, to a track where three laps equates to one mile. “This is such a nice setting.”
It’s now a little before 10 a.m. – roughly two hours after Briggs called for the walkers to start putting one foot in front of the other. This particular day featured a group of 20 dedicated souls – a total that’s up significantly from where participation stood when this program was launched in the middle of the summer. The walkers are staying close together, displaying a pack mentality that’s often seen among cross-county teams.
“To me, coaching was never a job. It was something I always enjoyed doing,” said Briggs. “Right now, I’m a happy camper. That’s probably the best way to put it.”
For Briggs, it doesn’t matter the age group. Once a coach, always a coach.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03