Those of us in the soccer community in Austin, Texas gathered together this past Saturday to honor one of our own, Mark Gregg, who sadly had passed away from heart failure a couple of weeks ago. As with most memorial events, this was not meant to be a sad occasion although with the passing of a very dear friend, tears are never very far away. With so many people telling so many different stories the moods changed from one speaker to the next. The people gathered were here to celebrate Mark’s life in its many and varied aspects and how he had touched so many individuals both singly and in large groups. This was in fact, a gathering that we could hear of the things Mark had accomplished and more so, how he had touched so many other people’s lives.
We assembled at the Onion Creek Soccer Complex for which Mark was so very instrumental in working with the City to form an alliance which enabled the Austin Men’s Soccer Association become working partners with the City on this project the end result of which is a beautiful complex of 10 full size soccer fields. The weather was very cooperative with the sun not yet out in full force to vent its fury of another typical summer’s day in Texas. With a stiff breeze blowing, the hundred plus people from all walks of life who came to join in the celebration were able to enjoy it in comfort. When I arrived around 9:00 am, there were small crowds of people standing around and chattering to each other. Many were friends from way back and had not seen each other in years. Others were team mates and friends who saw each other on a regular basis. Many were dressed in soccer shirts of teams they either played with or had players they admired. The Wanderers, Mark’s team, all came dressed in their black and white striped uniforms and presented a pretty solid picture of teamwork and camaraderie as they stood together in a tight group ready to bid their farewells both as a team and as individuals to one they had all known and admired for so long.
I wandered around talking to people I hadn’t seen in years and others who I had never met and had the pleasure of meeting for the first time. We chatted and recalled days gone by and of this play and that goal and ,”Do you remember..”. “Have you heard from…” and on and on. I looked at some of these fellow players and thought how old they looked and that I suppose I looked just as old to them. The passing of time had been kind to a few but others showed its forever relentless forward march. There was a lot of grey hair and to more than a few, the loss of hair on the top seemed to be in vogue. Not sure that these old guys were following the latest fashion trend or just doing as men have done the world over and for time immemorial in losing ones hair. To think that modern young men shave their heads to keep up with the local fashion trend. Heck, they only have to wait a bit and Mother Nature and Father Time between them will give them a permanent hair style almost just like the rest of us. As is the norm when people of the same athletic interest get together especially if they have not seen each other in a while, stories and comparisons of different surgeries topped by the big one, the knee replacement were the topic of the moment especially if as it was in all cases, a career ending injury. These players all walked around displaying 6-8 inch scars on their knees and wore them like badges of honor. Those that still were somewhat capable, boasted about still playing although in truth, “playing” in many cases, consisted of showing up and stepping on the field for 5 minutes and consuming vast quantities of beer for that effort, probably to celebrate that they had awakened that morning and then that they had “played” in yet one more game. Once upon a time many years ago, these same guys were all young strapping individuals, some with good skills others very athletic but all with the same purpose of playing a game for which the top honor was to be on the team declared as “Champions” for that season. They were all competitive with never a thought of age and what it can do to a body. Today, those same players were assembled 20 or so years later ready to re-live the game just one more time in honor of a fallen comrade. I looked at them as they stood in a tight little group and wondered what thoughts were going through their minds at that instant. For me, it brought home just one more time how fine a line we all walk between life and death and just how little control we have over it.
Phil Friday, another venerable and well-respected member of this grey haired body of soccer players, approached the microphone to get things started. Phil is one of the founder members of the Austin Men’s Soccer League and any praise coming from him, is praise indeed. He is also the very first person that my wife at the time, contacted to find me a team to play on just after moving to Texas from New York State. That was in 1977 and Phil and I have been friends for over 35 years. He began by outlining Mark’s life and role as ex President of the Austin Men’s Soccer Association and how he had dragged this body out of the dark ages into the 21st Centurywith a few of us, kicking and screaming along the way. Change is difficult and many of us were comfortable in the existing ways and did not want to see change.
Konnie, Mark’s wife was up next and there were not too may dry eyes when she had finished talking. From her, we learned of Mark’s love of his family and his Grandkidsand his never-ending love and affection for them and for anyone who had the good fortune to cross paths with Mark. Once you met Mark, and if he so chose, you were indeed a part of his extended family. Person after person stood up to extol the virtues that each had been a part of with their association with Mark and his family. There were people from all over the State, the country and even from overseas and all had a unique story to tell. What made this so very interesting is that the next person would stand up and talk about a whole different subject that Mark had somehow been involved in with them personally and the number of organizations that he had helped to found and then run, was quite astounding.
One of the funnier moments was when Sergio Escobar, President of Club America, one of the larger Hispanic Soccer Clubs that play at the complex, was discussing how Mark always had a ready smile which he flashed on every occasion showing a mouthful of well maintained teeth. Turns out that Sergio was Mark’s dentists…
Finally, members of Mark’s immediate family including many of his Grandchildren stood up and even though many of them were very distressed, they were all very determined to tell their story and how Mark, their Granddaddy, had helped them in their lives and how much they loved and missed him. At some point or another, Mark had coached all of the Grandkids, at least those old enough to play, in the fundamentals of becoming good soccer players and I’m quite sure at the same time, those life lessons that one learns on the sports field.
It there had been any dry eyes through the earlier proceedings, there were none at the end as we gave up trying to hide the tears that were flowing from us all. Grown men who routinely faced each other on the soccer field were not afraid to weep and show their love for this wonderful man that we had all just lost. Mixed in with the sadness was this huge aura of love that seemed to affect us just as though Mark was making his presence felt just one more time.
Matt Prewitt, the current President of Austin Men’s Soccer Association closed out the formalities with a well prepared speech noting in his remarks that Mark had made it known to everyone that cared to listen, that Matt was going to be the next President whether he wanted to be or not. Such was the determination and the resolve of the man that in the end, Mark had Matt believing he could do the job. Mark chose well and Matt is turning out to be a very good Presidential replacement for Mark moving forward. Maybe, I should rephrase this to say to say that no one can replace Mark least of all Matt. Sure, another person can be President and maybe do an even better job than Mark but how do you replace this man with his cheerful smile, and gentle ways and yet with his steely resolve to get things done.
With Matt’s final speech, it was time for the closing ceremonies which were equally as impressive and just as sad. Mark had chosen cremation and as a nice and unusual touch instead of his ashes being cast to the winds as is the usual custom, he planned to be the very foundation for the Texas Native Monterey Oak tree that the family had purchased and to act for the tree, just as he had done throughout his lifetime for countless others to help promote and then sustain their lives. The immediate family gathered around the tree and each took a turn in sprinkling some of Mark’s ashes in the space where this tree would hopefully spend the next hundred years. They, and those of us lucky enough to have been invited to this wonderful occasion, all believe that with Mark’s ashes as a foundation, this tree should grow and be around for a very long time. Of one thing we can be certain, given the proper care and attention, that tree will outgrow every single one of us at the Memorial including the youngest of the Grandkids…
With the tree very carefully placed back in the hole, the family took turns to place a shovel full of dirt back around the tree until it was all cleaned up and properly mulched. A vast quantity of white balloons were anchored to a tent and when I first noticed them I thought of them as decoration but they were to play a part in this celebration. The final act of this beautiful ceremony was to release these balloons which is one the Gregg family traditions when a member of their family passes on. The balloons were handed out and on a signal from Konnie, Marks wife, these balloons were sent into the air and Mark’s final trip was over. Maybe that is not entirely true as Mark’s spell on earth may have run its course but with the release of the balloons, each white and pure, maybe, just maybe, one of them was carrying Mark’s spirit to where it was going to end up in his next life.
To those of us that knew him well, Mark will never be forgotten. His quiet personality coupled with his quick smile endeared himself to all who knew him. His love of his fellow-man and his immediate family puts most of us to shame as not too many have that much love to share. I had the luxury of driving with Mark to Corpus Christi for a meeting one time and in that five-hour drive, we had that opportunity to exchange a lot of views of the world, our lives in general, the future and just about everything else under the sun. Of one thing I am sure. Mark knew a lot more about me than I did about him by the time we had arrived home. Such was the quality of the man that he had the ability to make one feel so at ease. Those that he left behind will now need to move on with their own lives knowing that although he is no longer a phone call away, he is still looking over those that he cares for the most.
Mark, May God Rest Your Soul. If I could have had just a teeny bit of the love and affection that you had for your fellow-man, maybe, just maybe I might have turned out to be just a little more caring and a much better individual.
Mark, our friend, has passed on
from the land of the living to a different one
where he has no problems for him to solve and can spend his time
however he wish. Because of the nature of the man
whose love is the most endearing thing that people like Mark
can bring to others who do not have so much to share and yet
we do not realize how lucky we are that we have known a man so great,
so sharing, so loving and so humble and to whom everyone was his friend.
What can we say except our days were brightened because of him
and I for one am very glad that of all the people in the world
he chose to share a part of his life with me.