You know that warm tingling feeling in your teeth and fingertips after a run? When you’re gasping for air, and all you can feel is life as you know it being restored to your lungs and body?
Joe Tribble knows it all too well on most days. But today wasn’t like most days. Today, Joe Tribble was late.
On Running Through History, a trip that Joe leads every summer through Europe, being late isn’t an option. In the summer of 2016, some boys learned that the hard way.
We had just arrived at a train station in Austria. It was night by now, and the entire group was exhausted from a full day of travel. A group of guys decided to leave the station to grab some McDonald’s before the connecting train came.
While Joe remains the shining example of what a McDonald’s connoisseur should look like, the trip itinerary said nothing about getting food. And the trip itinerary was of biblical importance as far as we were concerned.
While the boys voyaged on their happy meal quest, Joe began to pace around the station. His awkward gait was accelerated slightly, and every kid in the group knew what it meant. Tribble was angry.
I had moved further away from where the boys would arrive in anticipation of the impending explosion. The boys returned, stomachs full, to find Tribble pacing around the station ready to explode. Except he didn’t.
Even though Tribble never actually screamed, I knew why he wanted to. It wasn’t because the kids had gotten food for themselves and left the rest of the students hungry. Nor was it because they had failed to heed Tribble Time, a standard that required students to be 5 minutes early to every scheduled event. It was because he cared. It’s funny how some people show that they care.
Tribble Time rang in my head as I looked around for Joe. Still nowhere to be found. Then, I got a call.
“Jack, I’m down at the gym. It was nearly impossible to find a parking spot. I’m so sorry.”
How could I be angry at the man?
He changed the course of my last year at Westminster, the school I called home for 12 years.
It all started at the Gaisburg mountain in Austria, where the Running Through History group goes for a run every year. After I had finished running, Joe came over to me. I was doubled over, begging for air. He bent down so we could talk on my level.
“Schlafly, you have to run for the cross country team this season.”
I was on the football team too, but I couldn’t let him down. So, when I decided to run cross country and play football, we both knew that I wouldn’t be able to make cross country practices. Joe, now nearing 60, decided that he would run twice a week at 6 a.m. before school with me, then teach his history classes and run with the rest of the team after school.
I jogged to the gym to meet him. His hair was even shorter than before, and I knew why. His wife, Gail.
Gail had cancer for the second time. The stress of caring for his wife has undoubtedly taken a toll on Joe, but you’ll never see him wear it on his sleeve. He cares too much about his conversation with you to let that happen.
But today, just he and I in his office, the lasting imprint that cancer has on its many victims takes clear form in Joe. He stretches his legs, the ones that carried him through years of high school and college running at the University of Georgia, and repeatedly tries to get loose enough to run. It’s not working.
While he’s stretching, I start looking around his office. I say his office, but he does share it with the golf coach. Vintage pictures of Joe with former runners line the walls and his desk.
One of those pictures is with James Ottley, a graduate of Westminster back in 1989.
“He had a great combination of humor and seriousness,” says Ottley. A prime example of Tribble’s humor lies in a rather peculiar furniture commercial. A man with thick grey hair that wrapped around his face would talk about the furniture at his warehouse and conclude the commercial with his trademark line, “Hey, ask for the Wolfman.”
I reminded Joe of the Wolfman as we began our run, and a wide smile grew across his face as he turned back the clock to his younger self.
“Hey, ask for the Wolfman,” he said in as good of a country accent as he could muster. I didn’t need to remind him of the line.
It was right around that time that I realized we were jogging at a walking pace. The countless miles, along with his current case of a cold, have taken a toll on Joe like they would on anyone else. Joe hasn’t always been so fatigued, though. In his early days as the cross-country coach at Westminster, Joe would lead the pack in every workout.
“He was literally and figuratively right there with you during workouts,” says Eric O’Brien, a graduate of Westminster in 1992. “He was different than other coaches in the sense that he truly led by example.”
Along with running in the wee hours of the morning so I could perform my best and leading a group of 50 high school students on a trip through Europe, there are little things Joe does that often go unnoticed.
One of those deeds occurred at just over 10,000 feet. My friend Will and I had shadowed Tribble for much of the hike as the group made its way up the fifth-highest mountain in Switzerland, the Matterhorn. Just several hundred feet from our goal of reaching the Hörnli Hut, the second hut on the often-used route in the ascent of the mountain, the group had no choice but to head back down due to a lack of appropriate weather and time.
Coming so close to the goal made the hike that much more excruciating, and Joe was as crushed as anyone to receive defeat on the mountain. As Will and I turned around to head back on the route we had traveled minutes prior, Joe offered to take a picture of us.
He moved right towards the edge of the four-foot-wide trail in order to get the best angle for the picture. He snapped one before realizing that a better picture was possible. This time Joe stepped even closer to the edge, no more than two feet away from a seemingly endless drop off the southeast face of the mountain.
Joe had come close to death—to the point when Will and I had to ask him to go no further— so that we had a picture that will last a lifetime. And for the record, it really was a better shot.
Joe and I now found our long-lost 6 a.m. rhythm as we jogged along the winding roads that surround Westminster.
“Why do you treat everyone on your team the same?” I ask, out of the blue.
Joe responds, without hesitation. “Because the Bible says I should.”
In high school cross country, only seven runners are allowed to run in the all-important state meet at the end of the season. While the Westminster cross country team typically consists of around 40 runners, which means that over three-quarters of the runners don’t technically count towards a state championship, Joe has never seen it that way.
“You never know who might end up helping your team,” he adds.
It’s his unwavering confidence in runners one through 40 that has made Joe a favorite of so many students.
Scott Blusiewicz, who graduated from Westminster in 1998, knows all about Tribble’s care for every runner.
At his first ever track practice during his freshman year of high school, Blusiewicz didn’t have the right shoes. The practice ended as quickly as any running session can, and Scott headed home. Later that night, his home phone rang.
It was Joe.
“I remember him saying how I had done well for my first day,” Blusiewicz says. “But I needed running shoes. It really meant a lot to me as a freshman that he cared about me.”
There are a plethora of reasons why someone wakes up at 6 a.m. Today, Joe’s up to do chores before he and Gail head to her cancer treatment.
“It makes life a little bit easier for her,” he says as he empties the dishwasher. Now he’s outside walking the dog, a “chore” that he wishes Gail could still do.
Being the first one awake in a house can often provide a sense of serenity. On this morning though, as the sun climbs above the horizon, Joe hardly has peace.
“I’ve questioned whether I’m truly committed to victory in this thing,” he says as doubt wrinkles his face. Even for Joe, a man who’s accomplished so much in academics, sports, and life as a whole, he still questions his own drive, the fundamental aspect that has brought him all his success.
Constant trips to the cancer center can make any man question his own makeup. Joe typically grades papers while he waits for Gail during treatment. He stays on top of his work, but I can only imagine the lengths he might go to in order to keep his mind off Gail’s battle a couple doors down. Cancer’s branches travel deep into family trees.
The room is now overbearingly silent. For the first time since I’ve known Joe, he has nothing to say. After taking a couple deep breaths, he speaks again.
“I would give everything to make Gail healthy again. Everything.”
I believe him.
Joe told me that day in his classroom that he was willing to die for Gail.
When your house burns down, life can feel like an unclimbable mountain. When your wife has cancer, that mountain gets even higher. Joe’s challenges can at times seem like simply too much. Everyone has those challenges. They may not be as in-your-face or as grave as Joe’s are, but they wedge themselves into your everyday life.
Whenever I think of a mountain, I think of Joe and the time he took that picture.
We weren’t going to make it to the second hut that day, but Joe wasn’t fazed. Nothing was going to take away from his effort to make other people happy.
Joe can’t lead workouts like he used to. He can’t be right there, running alongside his runners as they fight up another hill. But you better believe he’s still around, cheering his runners on. And when you’re a runner for Tribble, you’re his runner for life. He’ll always be by your side, cheering you on as you fight the good fight against whatever hills lie ahead.