I spotted Coach Omar before I could put the car in Park at Montwood High and I’ll never forget the scene. From behind my windshield I saw little kids that reminded me of small chicks, chirping around on the tennis court, gathering tennis balls as fast as they could and putting them back in Omar’s giant basket so that they could run through their drills all over again. The little chicks – Omar affectionately calls them his pollitos – carefully followed his instructions.
“You have to comb the ball,” Omar instructed, mimicking the bottom-up motion of a topspin forehand. One by one, forehand after forehand, each student took their turn and took their best shots over and over until the basket was empty and the little chicks would have to scurry to fill it again.
It was during one of these breaks in the action that I decided to approach him, a large man from a distance that kept getting bigger and bigger the closer I got to him. This large man, with round shoulders and catcher’s mitts for hands looked more like the type of coach who could teach a kid the finer nuances of knocking a defensive lineman on his rear end rather than a delicate slice at the net. Toothpicks looked like they stood more of a chance in a giant’s mouth than the racket he held in his hand.
“How much do you charge?” I asked. Tennis was a sport I used to play as a kid and I just knew my daughters would love it if they gave it a chance.
Omar looked at my kids and gave me a shrug.
“I don’t charge nothing,” he replied with a hint of attitude. “I never charge.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Did I hear you right?” I asked, knowing full well how much parents have to pay in order for their kids to get private tennis lessons.
“Just have the girls here whenever you can and I’ll make sure they learn.”
That conversation took place in the spring of 2019. My daughters, and I, have been showing up as often as we can ever since. Omar not only managed to recruit my girls, he got me back into swinging the racket, too. I, at my age, also became one of his pollitos. While other, more established players looked at me funny, running through drills like I was in junior high again, I really loved experiencing what my daughters were experiencing.
Next thing I knew, I was dreaming of hitting screaming forehand winners that caught the back baseline. I grew addicted to the feel of the perfect shot against my racket, the sound of an ace zooming past an opponent. While my daughters practiced with Omar and his brood, I began swinging the racket again with the 18 and over team.
From a distance, I marveled at how much the kids adored him, from the littlest players who stand no taller than a racket to the high school athletes getting a little extra help outside of their school tennis practices. It doesn’t matter whom he’s talking to, the connection he makes with people is incredible.
“I take on these kids no matter where they go to school, most of them had never picked up a racket,” he said. The overwhelming majority of the students Omar works with come from El Paso’s east side, where until several years ago, only two country clubs existed in these parts. Today there is one, located in Far East El Paso. Last time I saw those courts, the weeds growing through the cracks in the surface were as high as the torn nets.
“These kids didn’t grow up on no country club,” he once told me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a shot to play and compete. And in many cases, Omar’s students are winning. Many have gone on to play tennis at the next level, earning small (and sometimes full) scholarships along the way.
But the good times came to a screeching halt the day a security guard rounded all of us up at the Montwood tennis courts one night last spring.
“Covid protocols are now in effect,” the guard announced. For many of us this would be the last time we’d see each other.
Aside from having to pause our season a few times since the pandemic began, some of our players tested positive. Sergio, my doubles partner and a nurse at University Medical Center, tested positive for the virus in May. Several other guys on the adult team were forced to sit out with positive test results, as well. Some made it back while others decided that getting it wasn’t worth chasing a fuzzy, yellow ball.
And then, we got the news nobody wanted to hear.
“Team, I want to let everyone know that my whole family got sick last week,” he wrote in our team’s group chat over the summer. Omar went on to inform us that he and his wife along with their two kids had tested positive for COVID-19.
Thankfully, Omar and his family have made a full recovery. But even last week he told me how sometimes he and his wife suddenly feel incredible fatigued.
“It’s the weirdest thing, Phillip,” he told me. “Could it be some of the after-effects of the coronavirus?”
Obviously, I wasn’t qualified to answer that question. It’s really all a mystery, this virus and it’s new, variant strains that seem to pop up every day. But I do know this: Omar has given me, my kids and countless others added value to their lives. Whether it is fitness or just camaraderie, it’s a value and friendship that so many people missed during this pandemic when we were forced to stop playing.
Right now Omar is looking to grow his team of small chicks (his pollitos), now that schools are slowly opening and protocols are easing up. And I’ll be helping him as long as he needs it. Having him as a friend, watching the kids get better, well, I understand now why Omar doesn’t charge for tennis lessons. More than anything, I know that what makes Omar such a big man is the huge heart he carries inside of him.
On the way home from the park I thought about the impact that Omar has made to so many people. Those thoughts went to a dark place, the place where the “what ifs” reside, like what if Omar hadn’t beaten the virus?
Right on queue, as if she knew what I was thinking, my daughter, Zoe, asked something profound.
“Daddy, can you imagine what it’d be like if we never met Omar?”
“I can’t, baby,” I replied.
Truthfully, I never want to.
If you want to join us out on the courts or have kids that want to learn how to swing a tennis racquet, just let me know! We’re always looking to grow the sport and have fun!