Byline: Kevin Schmit Daily Herald Sports Writer
Phil Lawler sits in a wicked traffic jam and smiles.
Time ticks by yet he feels no frustration. He relishes the opportunity to be stuck in his car.
Life, especially the last three years of it, earned him the right to not sweat the small stuff.
'I've always had a pretty upbeat attitude about life,' said Lawler, 57. 'Traffic jams? I enjoy them.'
An appreciation for the little things blends with Lawler's shrugging shoulders when it comes to big accomplishments. He's broken bread with superstars and dignitaries, he's appeared in one Academy Award-nominated movie and grew up in a setting similar to another.
Twice he's battled cancer.
He's a man of many hats, although the red Naperville Central baseball cap gets worn with the steepest of pride. He carries passion, dedication and pure love through the major elements of his life - coaching, physical education and family.
A humble man from humbler beginnings, he's spent the last 15 years reinventing himself while staying true to his roots.
The fist pump
On a Saturday evening last June, 30 years of coaching culminated in one magical event.
Naperville Central's baseball team claimed its first IHSA state championship.
Lawler, the team's venerable pitching coach, and longtime head coach Bill Seiple emerged from the dugout and left behind decades of near misses.
As Lawler walked toward a feverish celebration near the mound, he turned to his family in the stands of Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva.
'When he looked up in the crowd and gave us the big fist, it meant a lot,' said Scott Lawler, Phil's son. 'At that moment our whole family won. It's something we'll all cherish forever.'
That moment represented the ultimate reward for Lawler's devotion to the sport. It was a moment that came as he fought for his life during a second bout with cancer.
'There's a defining moment when your doctor tells you that you have cancer, and your life flashes in front of your eyes,' he said. 'But when it's over it really makes you realize what's important.'
160 acres and a dream
Lawler grew up one of six children on a 160-acre farm in Wall Lake, Iowa.
'I came from a background where I didn't have a lot,' he said. 'But honesty, integrity and work ethic were built into me.'
Sports dominated the country landscape. Phil, who graduated from a high school class of 38, and brothers Jim and Dan led their high school in nearly every sport it offered.
The best games, though, came on that Iowa farm.
'There's a strong bond that goes back to growing up on the farm,' Jim Lawler said. 'If we weren't working the field, we were out there playing ball.'
Their father carved out a plot of land and built a family baseball field. It had a regulation diamond, outfield and fence.
Sound familiar? Imagine the thrill when 'Field of Dreams' came to the big screen a couple of decades later and showed Kevin Costner doing the same thing on his Iowa farm.
'It was very emotional,' Phil Lawler said. 'It had everything I grew up with - an understanding of life growing up on a farm, a passion for baseball and the importance of family.'
Lawler eventually came to Illinois and was hired as Naperville North's freshman coach in 1976, the same year Seiple was named the Huskies' sophomore coach.
Six years later they took over the varsity program at Naperville Central. About six years after that Seiple handed over the pitching duties to Lawler, and the rest is history.
'It's just been a real rewarding experience to work with him all these years,' Seiple said. 'There's obviously a great friendship between us, but there's a mutual respect there as well. I think he's the best at what he does - bar none.'
As Phil Lawler embarked upon his high school coaching career, his brother Jim forged a college coaching path as a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona. Jim has since been an assistant at Texas A&M and a head coach at Gonzaga and the University of Texas-El Paso. He's now Arkansas-Little Rock's head coach.
Through the years Jim, a nationally renowned pitching coach, shared a wealth of information with his brother. It gave Phil Lawler the impassioned goal of soaking up every bit of knowledge he could.
He's met with top pitching experts, including Tom House and Nolan Ryan. No stone has gone unturned in his quest for pitching excellence.
'Baseball gets in your blood and you can't get rid of it,' Jim Lawler said. 'You could see that happen with Phil.'
Phil Lawler is recognized as perhaps the best high school pitching coach in Illinois, and to this day he actively seeks ways to hone his craft.
In the early 1990s he began working with computerized stick figure diagrams to evaluate mechanics. Today he uses computer- generated three-digit codes to relay pitch calls. It's a simple system, but it's impossible to steal the signs.
Mike Haverty, Tim Lavery, Craig Brookes and, now, Kyle Kaminska only begin the list of Naperville Central success stories on the mound.
He's a 1999 inductee into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and is an organizer of the IHSBCA summer tournament.
Although he's retired from teaching at Madison Junior High in Naperville, he has no plans of stepping away from baseball any time soon.
'Phil is a great teacher, not only for kids but for coaches throughout the state,' said Wheaton Warrenville South baseball coach Joe Kish. 'He's an ambassador for high school baseball in the state of Illinois.'
Nothing topped the experience of coaching his own kids. Phil and his wife, Denise, have three children from their marriage of 33 years - sons Scott and Todd, and daughter Kim.
Scott especially soaked in his father's coaching wisdom. He's been an assistant baseball coach at Northern Illinois, Evansville and Arkansas-Little Rock, where he coached with uncle Jim. After turning down head-coaching offers, Scott is now an assistant and recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame.
Growing up in his personal cradle of coaches was a blessing he still appreciates.
Scott fondly remembers the backyard barbecues that became pitching showcases. The cousins took turns auditioning for Phil and Jim, with an extended breakdown of mechanics sure to follow.
'It was a phenomenal experience for me,' Scott said. 'I hope that I'm as successful in my coaching as my dad. And I hope that I'm as successful as a husband and a father.'
When Scott's son, Lucas, was born last February, Phil visited Little Rock to meet his new grandson. It was only a month after Phil's cancer surgery.
When Naperville Central competed in last year's title game, Scott returned the honor. He came to town for a whirlwind weekend to see his old man do good.
'It was extremely emotional with the health issues he was facing,' Scott said. 'It was hard on the whole family, and my mom was right there with him. We were all upset, but we knew he was going to get through it. He loves life too much.'
Lawler's battles with cancer came in the span of only a couple of years. A man who made it his mission to improve the health of children suddenly faced his own health crisis.
The light bulb
About 15 years ago Lawler noticed a disturbing trend. A physical education teacher at Madison, he began reading and hearing about PE programs disappearing across the nation.
Lawler decided to do something about it.
'I read an article about how the health of kids was declining, child obesity numbers were increasing,' he said. 'At the same time physical education programs were being cut. I wanted to find away to make it thrive.'
What Lawler did changed the face of physical education. It also changed his life.
With the support of Madison and Naperville District 203, Lawler overhauled the system. Heart-rate monitors and customized workout regimens replaced the 'eight-minute mile or else' stigma of the past.
Because of Lawler, Madison and District 203 became a model program for improving the health of children.
Through his initiatives Lawler made physical education fun, interesting and effective. Madison's program soon became nationally recognized.
In 2000 Jim Baugh, president of Wilson Sporting Goods, founded PE4life, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing the development of physical education programs for children.
Lawler and Baugh soon joined forces. Seven years later, despite being retired from Madison after more than 30 years in education, PE4life consumes Lawler.
Almost daily he trains teachers and administrators from around the world. His program has been featured in Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report. It's blossomed into something beyond his wildest dreams.
'The experience I've had in the last five or six years has been absolutely nuts,' he said. 'I had to retire from teaching just to keep up with my phone calls and e-mails.'
He's worked with Peyton Manning, Mia Hamm and Bill Russell. He's consulted with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and George Bush's personal physician.
What sounds overwhelming is daily existence. But for all the big names he's spent time with, there are folks most people never heard of who receive the same personal attention.
'I was blown away by the time he put into it and the kindness he showed me,' said Tim McCord, the physical education department chair for the Titusville Area School District in Pennsylvania. 'He took an entire day to show me everything, and I was so impressed.'
With Lawler's help, Titusville's schools became another model for PE4life. The mission continues to grow, often from the least expected sources.
'Super Size Me'
In 2003, shortly after a CNN crew spent the day filming Lawler's creation, a documentary filmmaker named Morgan Spurlock came to Naperville to check out the famed program.
It was a far cry from the fancy CNN setup of makeup crews, expensive suits and elaborate lighting. Lawler still treated them with the same respect as the CNN crew.
'He showed up in blue jeans and had one cameraman with him,' Lawler said with a laugh. 'When he left I was wondering what the heck was going on.'
In 2004 Spurlock released 'Super Size Me,' a documentary that featured the filmmaker eating nothing but McDonald's for a month. Lawler appeared in a segment showcasing efforts to improve the physical fitness of children.
'Super Size Me' earned a Best Documentary Academy Award nomination, and Lawler was blown away. He even has his own section in the special features portion of the DVD.
'Our whole family went to the theater and I had no idea what I was seeing,' Scott Lawler said. 'My dad shows up on the screen and we all start laughing. Everyone in the theater's wondering why we're laughing at a scene about PE. It was really something.'
For all the attention Lawler and PE4life enjoyed prior to 'Super Size Me,' it grew 10-fold after its surprising success.
Lawler began to receive invitations to speak all over the world, including requests from China and Kuwait.
The invitations had to wait, however. Lawler had his own health issues to face.
A brighter light bulb
In 2004 Lawler was diagnosed with a rectal tumor. He went through treatment and was clean for about a year until he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
The second diagnosis and subsequent surgery came right before the 2006 baseball season. It came right after Seiple began his own recovery from cancer surgery.
It was a strange, sad time for Lawler. While he underwent treatment, four friends died of cancer. Several others fought their own cancer battles.
The Redhawks began their quest for a state title, but with a tinge of harsh reality. The season went on, and it proved to be the best medicine.
'That story in itself is so amazing,' Lawler said. 'There were days where if it wasn't for baseball I wouldn't have left the house. I just wanted to get out of 2006.'
Get out of it he did, with his health, positive attitude and driving spirit intact. His quest for better physical education and better pitching continues with no signs of slowing, and no sign of the cancer returning.
The experience made an impact that will be felt forever. Most important to Lawler, he believes it helped him become a better father and husband.
It allowed him to ponder his past as he fought for his future. His life did, in fact, flash in front of his eyes.
Life on the farm, life with his family, life in the small stuff and in the big time.
He does, however, have one lingering regret.
'If I had to do it over again,' he said, 'I would have found a way to go to the Academy Awards.'