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Beyond The Gym Floor Tom Hess

Beyond The Gym Floor—Tom Hess

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois, speaks with Tom Hess of Rantoul Township High School.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Welcome back to Beyond the Gym Floor. Today we are joined by Tom Hess of Rantoul Township High School. And I actually did my student teaching at Rantoul Township High School back in 1999. So I just have to know, was Rantoul Township High School forever changed by my presence? And you know what? Let's have you answer that right now. So where did you grow up, Tom?


TOM HESS: I grew up in northern California. I was born in Santa Cruz. And my family moved up into the foothills of the Sierras when my grandparents retired and I grew up there in the mountains in northern California.


JAMIE O’CONNOR So then that begs the question, why are you here in central Illinois?

TOM HESS: That's a great question. To find Rantoul from there is kind of a far thought. But I went to junior college in California and the junior colleges in California are really big for athletics, so they put out a lot of kids all over the country. And I had a couple of guys before me in junior college that went to Eastern Illinois. There was a coach at Eastern Illinois. His name's Clancy Barone. He's now the tight ends' coach for the Chicago Bears. And he was from California and he coached at a junior college there at one time. And then he was the coach at Eastern and he kind of went up and down California and got as many junior college guys as he can. So I came to Eastern Illinois from College of the Siskiyous in northern California. It's the northernmost junior college in California, near Mount Shasta, about 40 miles from the Oregon border.

JAMIE O’CONNOR That's nuts. I didn't realize that we had this northern California, Eastern Illinois University pipeline. Is it still in place? Do they still--

TOM HESS: You know, it was in place for a long time. I think there's been a couple of coaching changes now, so not as prevalent. But when I was there we had 14 California guys on our roster.

JAMIE O’CONNOR That's insane. Now, I know that-- I went to grad school with a guy, David, who was from northern California. And I know that being in central Illinois, every single day he felt just agitated. He wanted to be back in the mountains of northern California. Do you feel that way?

TOM HESS: I definitely get those feelings at times. I think over the years-- it's been a long time for me as I'm getting older, but I felt like that at first but I've gotten used to it. I think now it's come February, I get a little bit itchy. Sometimes I get depressed because of not having the sun or warm weather. But I've learned ways to deal with that. And so I'm pretty comfortable with it now. I do like the season changes. I enjoy that. I just don't like the drastic cold. When it's 20, below 20, zero, and below zero, I just don't understand why it has to be that cold.

JAMIE O’CONNOR I agree with you. So to my Wisconsin, Minnesota listeners, I did spend four years-- actually, seven years up North. And by my last year, after having three or four days in a row of sub-zero temperatures, I was done. I was done. So what led you to PE?

TOM HESS: Oh, man, honestly by default. I was really, in high school and junior college, driven by sports. I played football, basketball, and I ran track in junior college. So I was a three sport athlete in high school and in junior college. And I was recruited for all three sports but I really wanted to be a basketball player. But in junior college, football rose above everything. So I wound up getting-- I wanted to play Division I, and I wasn't getting Division I offers for basketball, but for track and football I did. And so I pursued that. Went to Eastern Illinois and so once I got there, they were like, you have to decide what you're going to major in. And I just was like, well I don't know. I was really interested in athletic training, like sports medicine, but as a Division I athlete, the hours it takes to be in athletic training was just something you couldn't do because of the time requirements for football and track. I just couldn't do that training. So the next closest thing was physical education. And that kind of came by default, too, with my advisor. I'll never forget. Well, what do you want to major in? I was like, well, I'm not sure if I can't do athletic training. Well, what was your favorite class? And I was like, well, PE. I loved PE. I liked playing sports and being active, so that's what led me-- and then she was like, well, do you want to be teaching or not teaching? I was like, well, I don't want to be a teacher. Because I really thought I was going to the NFL anyway, so I was like, this is all just not that important. So at that time I was very naive. But she was a good counselor and was like, well, if you get a degree and it's not teaching, there's just not a whole lot of opportunities for jobs. And I was like, I'm not worried about that. I'm going to the NFL.

JAMIE O’CONNOR I'm going to the NFL, yeah.

TOM HESS: Hello. And she was pretty wise. Well, you know, even when you do the NFL, sometimes it doesn't last for long. That's what they call the NFL, not for long.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Oh, my god.

TOM HESS: So anyway, she encouraged me to do teaching and I was like, well, fine. So I said yes. Then she goes, well, do you want to be 9 through 12 or kindergarten through 12? And I was like, well, I don't want to mess with little kids. I'm not a nose-wiper. I'm not good with that. I don't even like doing that to my own kids. And she was like, well, you'll just be way more marketable if you're K through 12. And I was like, OK.

JAMIE O’CONNOR This counselor was really on top of it.

TOM HESS: She was really on top of it. And I still know her. And I'm thankful for her guidance because if I hadn't had that, I don't know what I'd be doing now. So fortunately, I was able to get through school and play. I played football and I ran track at Eastern. And it was pretty busy. And I'll be honest. Academics wasn't the priority. I knew I needed to stay eligible, but I didn't try as hard as I would have liked to in my classes during that time. But as I've grown up, things have obviously changed.

JAMIE O’CONNOR So do you coach at Rantoul as well?

TOM HESS: Yeah, I'm the head football coach right now. But I've coached basketball and track as well, at different times. I was the head girl's track coach a few years ago. And when I became head football coach I gave that up because I wanted to really concentrate and do a really good job with the football program.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Very nice. How long have you been the head football coach?

TOM HESS: This is my fourth year, my fourth year with no season. So three seasons so far.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Right, right. Very good. So you're wearing a lot of different hats at Rantoul, just with teaching, and coaching, et cetera.

TOM HESS: Yup. Yeah, I stay busy and I love it. I love my job. I'm thankful for my job and I look forward to the challenges. And every day is different, especially during COVID.

JAMIE O’CONNOR No doubt about it. So what's the most important lesson, over the years, that your students have taught you?

TOM HESS: I think humility. I think always trying to be the authority in a way that you're not wrong and you're always right. I think showing kids and admitting that you're wrong sometimes, and that you made a mistake, and being humble and showing humility like that, is a great teacher. And I know when I was a student when my teachers know it all and they're never wrong, it's hard to relate to. So I think I bring myself down a notch and own my mistakes and try to be honest and humble about things like that. That's probably the number one thing.

JAMIE O’CONNOR I love that. In fact, I feel like that lesson I've translated into parenting, too. I feel like it helps when I admit that I've made a mistake when I'm communicating with my four-year-old. His eyes get wide, like, I didn't even know it was possible for you to make a mistake. And I feel like it helps him to see that we're just human, too.

TOM HESS: Yeah, I think good teachers and good parents go hand in hand.

JAMIE O’CONNOR No doubt. So how do you try to reach your students? I know you teach high school kids. And I know that from my experience with high schoolers, some of them are disengaged from PE. How do you try to reach them?

TOM HESS: You know, that is a great question. I think it's the question that if you ever have the right answer for that, you could make a lot of money. I have a bunch of books on my shelf over here about how to motivate people. I've taken classes on how to motivate people. And so it is different for each individual, and I would say the number one thing I've learned about that is that every person's different. And so not everyone's motivated by the same thing. And so differentiating that with your students, it goes a long way. But in order to do that, you have to develop a relationship. You have to get to know each one before you can figure out what's driving them, what their goals are. And I'll be honest. A lot of times, they don't even know. And so sometimes, it's, together, a process of figuring out what does motivate them, what they really do want, because sometimes they're just kind of tunnel vision and not really thinking about what they really want or what's important.

JAMIE O’CONNOR They need someone to help tap into that a little bit.

TOM HESS: Yeah, and I was that way, too. Nobody-- I wish I would have had somebody that would have done some of the things I do now when I was younger, as far as guiding and getting a focus and a vision. A lot of our students, especially a Rantoul-- a lot of our students come from broken homes and some of them even some extreme poverty. So sometimes it can be hard for them to have a vision of the future. And so when you're living like that, and times are tough, and you're living in reality, what's important are essentials. Thinking, I'm going to go to college and live out my dreams is not something a lot of our students think about. And so trying to keep those dreams alive and put them on a path to hey, there are ways that you can overcome your situation.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Is there a teaching highlight that you have that comes to mind?

TOM HESS: A teaching highlight? I read this question in there and it's hard for me to think of just one highlight moment. I think for me, it's more of a progression from what I was as a young teacher to what I am now and the total difference. I guess the highlight is just being where I'm at right now and having a better understanding of how to deal with my students and get to know them, develop that relationship, and help them find their motivation and their vision and keep their dreams alive. So my highlight is just what I'm doing right now.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Growing as a teacher.

TOM HESS: Growing as a teacher, yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR I feel you. So any advice? We have a number of University of Illinois PE undergrads. What would you say to them if you were in the room with them?

TOM HESS: I think be passionate and focus on your strengths. I know for a long time I was always trying to be good at things that I saw other people doing. And so, oh, that's what you're supposed to be. And so I think being-- don't get me wrong. I'm always trying to work on my weaknesses. But I think you ride on your strengths. You got where you are because you're good at certain things, so don't let those things go. Continue to let your strengths carry you while you work on your weaknesses.

JAMIE O’CONNOR That's great advice. So even though you're from northern California, I'm not going to hold that against you. So you are still a hometown hero, Tom. And so your students and the people in this community need to know a few extra things about you. If you weren't a teacher-- and I know you mentioned being an NFL superstar, but if you weren't a teacher, what would you be doing?

TOM HESS: I'd be coaching because it's the next closest thing to playing. So I played for a long time. I was able to play Division I football. I played in the arena league professionally for three years, won two championships. I was real close to breaking into an NFL team. So that was a very exciting time of life and it was a passion. And you put a lot of time and energy into that, and the same goes with coaching. So I coached at a small college for a while. I coached at Fork Union Military Prep School for a while. So I was on that path but then I had kids. And so the coaching at the college level, big time college or professional level, is really hard to have young children. And so going into teaching and falling back on my degree was a blessing, to be honest, because that career in coaching-- it's glamorous at the top, but you don't hear all the stories of the people who are struggling to make it, and not making very much money, and trying to survive. So having my teaching degree was a blessing, and to be able to go and rely on that and kind of hone my craft as a teacher. And coaching in high school level is obviously a lot different. In the college level, you still put a lot of time in but you're not traveling and recruiting and all that kind of stuff. So I was able to still be home and raise my kids and put some time in with them.

JAMIE O’CONNOR And as we know, that's the most important thing. Are you an early bird or a night owl? If given-- now, I know you have young kids. So take kids out of the equation. Are you an early bird or a night owl?

TOM HESS: My kids are old now. My kids are old now. But I have to say, I do appreciate both. But I have to say-- and you asked some advice for your students there at the University-- you can't do both. So if you want to be a night owl, don't do that when you got to get up early. So that's for me. I like being up at night sometimes, but I know that I have to have my rest, so I can't do that if I have to get up early. But I also like getting up early and being up with the sun. And I feel like I get a lot more done in the morning and I have more energy and more focus, so I appreciate both. I know that's not maybe what you wanted to hear, but--


TOM HESS: --the moral is that I know that I can't do both at the same time.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Is the moral.

TOM HESS: One or the other.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Exactly. So what's your typical go to breakfast on a given day?

TOM HESS: If I have to go to school, I usually eat a Cliff bar and a big glass of water.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Got it. You have one then.

TOM HESS: But if I don't have to go to work, like now, I like to have eggs.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

TOM HESS: I like to make eggs, yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Something kind of packaged if you need to run out of the door, but eggs and the whole works if you have a nice morning at home.


JAMIE O’CONNOR I like it. Favorite guilty pleasure fast food. So you're on a road trip. Where do you want to stop?

TOM HESS: Chick-fil-A is my favorite. I don't even feel that guilty about it because it seems a little bit like more wholesome than all the other fast foods. But I'm not sure that that's true or not. I don't look at the calories a lot, but I like Chick-fil-A.

JAMIE O’CONNOR All right. Favorite TV show right now. What are you enjoying?

TOM HESS: You know, my wife's got me into watching all these series now. So I'll be binging a different series each time. And most recently, it was Hell on Wheels. It's kind of a Wild West story of building the railroads across the country.

JAMIE O’CONNOR All right, I like it. I'm always looking for recommendations because I'm just about to wrap up with The Crown and I'm really sad that that's coming to an end, so I need another show. So thanks for the recommendation.

TOM HESS: I haven't watched The Crown. We watched-- the most recent one was the one about the girl playing chess and I can't think of it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Oh, yeah. The Queen's Gambit.

TOM HESS: The Queen's Gambit. I was like, I am not watching this. And my wife, I heard it's good. Because we like different things, my wife and I. And so she'll watch football with me sometimes, and so I watch Housewives sometimes. It stresses me out. But The Queen's Gambit was actually really good. I was entertained by it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR So you got sucked in.

TOM HESS: Yeah, it was good.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Yeah, I agree. I liked it, too. Well, Tom, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor, and you have a wonderful day.

TOM HESS: Thank you so much. You, too.

JAMIE O’CONNOR Thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. And if you would like to be a guest or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me, Jamie O'Connor, at Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show either through iTunes, iHeart Radio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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