Todd Schulz is a Michigan-based freelance writer who did a fair amount of work for Volleyball magazine in the 2000s when Mike Miazga was editor. He’s also a long-time volleyball player, coach and official.
By Todd Schulz for VolleyballMag.com
My 72-year-old father recently called with unusual urgency and excitement in his voice.
He had big news to share. While digging through the basement of our childhood home in Saginaw, Michigan, he’d found something valuable that he planned to eventually leave to my brother and me.
What was the startling discovery that promised to change my dad’s estate plans?
Rare jewels? A family heirloom? A box of buried cash from a long forgotten relative?
Even better, dad promised.
He’d stumbled upon his sizable but dusty archive of Volleyball Monthly and Volleyball magazines dating to the early 1980s.
To many people, the stack of aging news print probably constitutes a fire hazard fit for the nearest dumpster. But to my dad, who loves the game more than anyone I’ve met, the magazines truly are worth their weight in gold.
Dad caught the volleyball bug in his 30s and has pursued the game with unrivaled passion over the ensuing four decades. He played indoors and out for years and has coached high school, club and college volleyball.
He’s such a fixture in gyms and at beaches throughout the state that it’s rarely more than five minutes before someone hollers “Hey Elmer!” and the conversation turns to old times, teams and tournaments they enjoyed together.
Dad, of course, was an early and loyal subscriber to Volleyball Monthly. And it wasn’t long before my brother and I were playing and fighting him for first dibs to each new issue.
There wasn’t exactly a wealth of volleyball coverage while growing up in the Midwest in the ’80s. No volleyball on television. No internet. No readymade examples of guys playing the game at a high level.
As a result, we devoured the stories and photos that brought to life personalities like Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, the heroes of the ’84 gold-medal USA men’s team, and even actor Tom Selleck, who graced a cover.
The magazine was our lifeline to discovering the indoor, college and beach stars in faraway places like California — and to developing our own skills. Opportunities to play competitively were few and far between for teenage boys in Michigan at the time.
We learned at the local YMCA, where my dad was part of a strong volleyball community that fielded men’s teams for recreational indoor tournaments around the state. I was a regular tagalong, gladly spending long days in the gym watching match after match, coaxing my dad and his teammates to pepper on the sidelines and sneaking into hitting lines whenever possible.
There were no camps or formal instruction available near us then, especially for boys. I learned to play by imitating what I saw on the court. And I learned to appreciate the team camaraderie, savoring the car rides and post-tournament dinners where the guys celebrated the day’s biggest moments and good-naturedly ribbed one another for the not-so-great plays over burgers and beers. At least once, we spent the night before in dad’s pickup truck parked at the school hosting the tournament — one way to ensure we’d be on time and all part of the ambiance.
At roughly age 10, dad brought me along to the state tournament in Detroit. Several teammates were late, and the rules said they needed six players to avoid forfeiting the opening match. Somehow, the official was convinced to let me act as player No. 6, standing on the court until the ball was served, then quickly stepping off before the rally. Eventually, I rotated to the serving position. My nervous, underhand attempt caught the top of the net cord — and fell feebly back to our side of the floor. That was my only shot at glory as, to everyone’s relief, the tardy teammates finally showed.
We got our best volleyball education at beach tournaments on the Lake Michigan coast, where dad served as the first regular doubles partner for both of his boys. We’d usually make the three-hour plus drive across the state from Saginaw on Saturday morning, which required piling into the car before 5 a.m. to arrive in time to warm up before a 9 a.m. start.
Again, we started by watching. Not a hard sell as, hey, we were at the beach. Eventually, we begged our way onto the court and, at 12 or 13 years old, I entered my first tournament and won the championship of a lower division, Sunday co-ed event. I kept the poster board bracket that doubled as a prize for years.
Later, dad helped us form a club team with school friends, carting us around the Midwest and as far as Canada in his conversion van to play against adult men, girls club teams and anyone else who would let us on the court.
My younger brother Marc ultimately earned the most playing success, earning a varsity spot at a small school while I played college club ball. We continued to play on the beach and we’ve both stayed connected to the volleyball community through coaching and officiating in the decades since, making many friends along the way.
Once my daughter Madeline was old enough and made the mistake of showing an ounce of interest in the sport, I started a club program for her and her friends. Over the years, dad generously commuted 90 minutes one way to serve as my “assistant coach,” a laughably inadequate title considering he’s forgotten more about teaching volleyball then I’ll ever know. He had a front row seat to watch his granddaughter and her teammates grow up in the game, transforming from tiny kids learning to pass into a close-knit, talented bunch that played together up through the 18’s age bracket.
Dad’s energy for volleyball will never fade. He also shared the sport with our younger sisters, including Ellen, who was a small-college volleyball standout who attended national-team open tryouts and now coaches high school volleyball in Michigan.
None of us kids made the pages of Volleyball Monthly or its future incarnations for our playing abilities or accomplishments. But I did get there as a journalist, contributing regular articles in the 2000s. Though I worked for bigger publications and covered bigger sporting events such as Super Bowls and Final Fours, my assignments for Volleyball magazine — I wrote features on John Cook, Kim Oden and Elaine Youngs, among others — were special because of what the game meant to my dad and our family.
These days, dad is still coaching, focused mainly on developing future setters. He’s helped hundreds of young people throughout Michigan and the Midwest. And while his playing days are largely behind him, he’s still in good enough shape to show how it’s done. The spirit remains even if the body can’t always cooperate as it once did.
Volleyball is engrained in the legacy he’s created for his kids. Many of the details of specific points, games and tournaments played faded long ago. What remains is an enduring family bond forged through mutual passion for volleyball and countless hours spent together on the court.
That’s why I understood perfectly my dad’s uncharacteristic emotion at unearthing the dusty stack of magazines in his basement. He’d found more than a pile of fading paper — he’d discovered a mountain of priceless memories.