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"Some coach came up to me and asked how he could become Long Strong.
"I told him, 'You don't want to'."
Long is the head coach of the Staunton River wrestling team. That program has had a nice run of success under Long's watch, always sending a good number of grapplers to the State meet in Salem.
I've spent many hours talking wrestling with Coach Long and know he is more than just a good coach. He's a good guy. I also know:
-He's a teacher.
-He's a husband of 26 years.
-He's a father.
That's because he lost his daughter in a car crash on October 14. Hannah Long was but 15 years old.
Ronnie Long was enjoying a cup of coffee on an early Sunday morning, his wife Linda having already headed to early Sunday service. That's when he heard a knock on his door. There stood two State troopers with news that was incomprehensible in its devastation.
"It's been traumatic," said Long. "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with. I was very concerned for Linda and thought she might die of a broken heart."
Their daughter, whom Long described as "someone who loved people and being around them," would no longer be here to do so.
The Longs live in Vinton. Ronnie Jr., a Marine Corps veteran, is at home to support his parents. Many extended family members live in shouting distance of the Longs. Their support has been invaluable as the Longs deal with their loss.
What has also been invaluable is the loving embrace of the Bedford community and members of the local wrestling scene.
This was a heartache that transcended the Staunton River community. After all, Hannah was a student at Liberty. When the family moved to Vinton, the decision was made to allow her to continue at Liberty, even though that entailed an hour's drive each way for Linda and Hannah.
Long also told me that Hannah wanted to be her own person, not to be known as "Coach Long's kid." She could do that at Liberty. By all accounts, she fit in well and was well-liked.
Popularity, however, helps little in a car accident.
The outpouring of love for Long and his family was immediate and it was strong.
At the visitation, Long noticed that there were large numbers of students from both Liberty and Staunton River.
He came back to school and was stunned to see the door to the wrestling room covered in paper crosses bearing messages of love and support.
Practice started on Nov. 12. Ronnie and Linda had discussed near-term plans. "My wife comes first, but she knows me and knew that wrestling would be a therapy for me," said Long.
"This is a safe haven for him," said assistant coach Jeremy Tyree. "If anything was going to help him get through it, it would be wrestling."
So, rather than take a leave of absence, there he was on that first Monday of practice. "It was emotional," he recalled. "The first couple weeks, I was walking on eggshells. Just the mention of her name would make me tear up.
"Then I thought, how can I make these kids get better?"
The kids, meanwhile, have been thinking of the coach. Junior Jacob Thompson designed a tee-shirt. On the front it reads, "Coach Long Strong." On the back are Hannah's initials.
Everyone associated with the Golden Eagle program wears the shirt to matches. (Of course, the coach that asked Long about becoming Long Strong had no idea of the situation.)
Long's hope is that plenty of those shirts will be heading to Salem in February.
After each practice, the team comes together in a circle of unity, Long's loss on their minds.
In the meantime, he's impressed with the effort his wrestlers are giving. "You cannot work them hard enough," he noted.
A tenet of leadership states that you never ask an underling to do something you're unwilling to do yourself. So when Long asks wrestlers to move up a weight class and take a pounding or to work through some physical ailment, they do so knowing the coach's sense of sacrifice and their desire to help. These River kids have responded well.
"What I like about this community is that nobody's kids are tougher and nobody bounces back harder."
Same goes for the coaches.