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Passionate, sports-loving dad teaches rules of game, life

January 25, 2019

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Toss out the name Van Wade and most folks will smile and say they often hear him before they see him.

The affable Wade is known for his exuberant shouts of encouragement on football and baseball fields whenever his kids practice or play.

It’s crystal clear Wade’s kids are many. Sure, there is a trio of sports-loving boys who call him Dad; but there are many more with no familial connection who call him Coach.

“The guy is amazing,” said Wilson Santucci, Wade’s friend who is one of four assistant coaches of a travel team of 9- and 10-year-old football players. “And, it’s true. I heard him before I ever laid eyes on him. He was getting the boys fired up and motivated.”

Santucci was so impressed with the interaction between Wade and a group of Pee Wee football players, he sought out Wade to help him with a team.

“I wasn’t sure at first — it was tackle rather than flag football,” Wade said. “But I fell in love all over again with football.”

That was three years ago. In three years, the team has lost two games, said the 36-year-old Wade.

“I love defense and Santucci loves offense,” he said.

While that may be so, Santucci said he’s grateful to coach alongside Wade.

“He allows me to coach offense, but he could do either,” he said. “But we are just a bunch of volunteers. There’s no head coach; just four assistants on the same page.”

Coaching with Wade and Santucci are Ben Collins and Shawn Moore. Greg Harbison is the general manager.

Santucci has not ceased to marvel at his friend’s motivational magic.

“The kids are motivated by anything he says,” said Santucci, whose 9-year-old son is on the team. “He is a leader with such high energy. You don’t normally see a coach jumping and high-fiving and chest-bumping his players. He empowers them to be their best. They’d run through a wall for him.”

The travel football team, known as the Tupelo Eagles, uses the facility and field at Tupelo Christian Preparatory School. Team members “come from everywhere.” This past season, the Eagles won the league’s superbowl.

And while Wade will admit winning is wonderful, it’s not why he loves what he does.

“To watch a child develop and start to understand the game is amazing,” he said. “I’ve had kids on a football or baseball team for the very first time, and we work together and I can see when he suddenly figures it out and that is something to see and be a part of.”

His own three sons, 11-year-old Alden, 10-year-old Joby and 9-year-old Austin all play football and love the game. And though Wade’s fiercely proud of his own boys, he said he looks at all his kids the same way.

“I always tell them, ‘This ball, this game are nothing without y’all.’ It’s all about the kids.”

Wade’s married to Amy Wade, a teacher. In addition to his also Dad to 16-year-old Annaka and 5-year-old Avy Jane.

Wade played football in high school, but a shoulder injury put a stop to the game for him.

But mention baseball and Wade becomes even more animated than usual.

“Baseball is a whole other passion,” he said, smiling. “I played the game since I was 6 or younger. It was our sport — my dad’s and mine. I remember getting off the school bus and seeing Dad standing outside with a glove ready to play.”

Wade’s father, Johnny C. Wade, fought in Vietnam before his son was born. He came home with a Purple Heart and only one eye, and when his son came along, he taught him to love baseball.

“I was playing the day he died,” Wade said. “I was in the eighth grade. He’d told me to come home but I told him I had a game. My older brother drove up in Dad’s vehicle while I was pitching. I saw him, dropped my glove and ran to my brother.”

That’s when Wade learned his father had died.

“I finished out the year, but I didn’t play after that,” he said. “The game just wasn’t the same.”

These days, Wade is passionate about teaching young players to love and respect the game.

Several years ago, Wade and Al Phillips were helping with the Tupelo Rangers.

“They were not progressing like we thought they should,” Phillips said. “Van and I got together, pulled out and decided to start a team.”

“We talked to Buddy Dickerson at Elite Sports Academy in Chesterville,” Wade said. “He had a spot open, a field open and we had three kids.”

A hunt for additional players finally gave them a team of 10, a few who had played very little or perhaps not at all.

Their first tournament was in Oxford in the month of February.

“It was cold and drizzling, there were lots of people and there was turf when these kids were used to dirt,” Wade said. “They looked like little deer in the headlights. I told them it would be OK, just hit the ball.”

The newly formed Chesterville Badgers won no games in the first tournament. But two weeks later, a return to Oxford for a second tournament brought astounding results: The team won. And they’ve continued to do well.

Now in their third season, Wade and Phillips are proud of their team of 10-year-olds.

“Van is a good Christian man,” Phillips said. “He’s a motivator. He’s all about the kids, not about the winning.”

Dickerson, owner of Elite Sports Academy who has worked with Wade for two years, agreed.

“Van is a hard-working individual. Polite, respectful, energetic,” he said. “He is a delight, a joy to work with.”

When he works with his kids on any given day, Wade’s every instruction is followed with determination — “On your feet; in a circle; one more, son.”

When the tasks are completed, there’s the famous Wade praise and encouragement — “Atta boy; good job, good job; good form.”

And his boys remain attentive, always at the ready to respond to their coach’s commands.

It’s a job meant for Wade; or perhaps Wade was meant for the job. Either way, he considers it a calling.

“Just to watch kids get comfortable and even get just a little bit of a cocky swagger — it’s just what I love,” Wade said. “And it’s about so much more than sports. To watch shy, uncertain kids develop into more confident, socially active kids, it sets them up for success in life as well, not just on ball fields.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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