Russell Tracy considered himself “a pretty good playground player” on the basketball courts around Dover-Foxcroft during the mid-1970s.
But with chores to do around his family’s farm, he played just one year of high school basketball.
That never tempered Tracy’s love for the sport. Nor did a parachuting accident while in the Army in 1980 that left him with no feeling below both knees and reliant on crutches and a strong upper body to get around.
A decade later, an opportunity to coach evolved into an annual rite of winter for Tracy. He remained in the Piscataquis Community High School basketball program for 31 years before retiring recently as the girls junior varsity and varsity assistant coach.
Tracy maintained a low profile with his players regarding the cause of his lack of mobility. He did open up several years ago during a PCHS graduation speech he wrote while fishing on Moosehead Lake with his son Tyler.
“I never hid what happened to me,” he said. “If they wanted to talk about it I would, but I never spoke about it much, either.”
Those who have coached with Tracy over the years not only view him as a valuable contributor to the basketball program but a profile in perseverance.
“He doesn’t make any excuses, he doesn’t complain and, no matter how bad you think you have it, whether the weather’s bad or you’ve lost a game or you didn’t make the playoffs, with Russell life goes on,” said Central girls basketball coach Jamie Russell, who coached boys varsity basketball with Tracy for eight years at PCHS.
“The kids always respect him.”
Coping with winter weather became more challenging for Tracy in recent years, in part because of knee replacement surgery that left him using a wheelchair more often. But that wasn’t his primary reason for stepping down.
“For the last four years at Guilford we haven’t had enough girls to have two separate practices,” Tracy said. “When you’re a coach you want to do what the varsity coach does, but you also want your own hour and a half because different coaches look at different things. That’s just the way it is.”
While Tracy’s coaching brethren will miss his strategic contributions to the basketball program, they’ll also miss the intangibles he has demonstrated in coping with his own adversity.
“He’s been an inspirational type of person,” PCHS girls varsity basketball coach Brian Gaw said.
Tragedy in the air
Tracy enlisted in the Army’s delayed entry program while a senior at Foxcroft Academy in 1978 with designs to focus on truck driving, but he was recruited to become a paratrooper while in basic training by members of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I thought it was a great idea, not knowing how scared I would be every time I jumped out of a plane,” said Tracy, whose first flight came when he was flown to Portland for his enlistment ceremony.
Tracy gained experience parachuting out of planes and helicopters without incident until his 24th jump, a nighttime exercise two years into his military service.
“When the chute came out, what happened was what they called a Roman candle,” he said. “It was just like you were wringing a washcloth out. But they have you so well trained that when you look up and see it, you say, ‘I’m in trouble,’ though that’s not exactly what I said. Then I popped my reserve chute and that worked for a few minutes until it started to get wrapped around the chute that was already there. That dumped the air out of it, then I landed.”
Tracy broke his back in a couple of places, and injuries to his spinal cord left him a low paraplegic.
“It was low on the spinal cord but enough so I can move my legs, but from the knees down I have no feeling and can’t control them,” he said.
After rehabilitation Tracy was eventually able to walk with leg braces. He returned home to help out as best he could on the farm. He also accompanied a friend back and forth on trips to Vermont, where a year later he met his wife, Julie.
A few years after the Tracys settled back in southern Piscataquis County, he began coaching after Julie — a field hockey coach in Guilford — told him about a middle-school opening.
Life on the sideline
Tracy’s early coaching experiences were first with the Guilford middle school boys “B” team, then the “A” squad.
“I had a couple of good teams,” he said. “But I could never beat [Charlie] Peavey and Corinna. He was my cousin, too, and that really made me mad.”
One of Tracy’s middle-school teams became the nucleus of the 2001 PCHS squad that captured the Eastern Maine Class C championship.
“Russell carried himself with a lot of confidence in his ability to be a coach,” said Joe Gallant, who coached with Tracy at the middle-school level and is now the athletic administrator for RSU 4.
Tracy coached three of his four basketball-playing sons in middle school. That included Tyler, who is the boys varsity coach at Poland High School.
Tracy also coached middle-school baseball for several years, but basketball was his true love. He eventually ascended to the high school level under Russell.
“I was really sold on what Jamie did as far as the team concept, something I still do now in terms of drills,” he said. “I always said if I had known then what I do now, I would have beaten my cousin.”
Tracy spent the last 12 years coaching girls basketball with Gaw, a change that required some personal adjustment. He grew up as one of six brothers with no sisters and had just sons in his own family.
“Working with girls was a totally foreign concept, but to tell you the truth it was one of the best moves I’ve ever made. It was so much fun,” he said.
Tracy was the Pirates’ varsity coach for five games last winter after Gaw became ill and guided the team to a 3-2 record.
“It was great,” he said. “We won three of them, although I won one that I tried to lose.”
Tracy’s retirement from coaching may not be a complete separation from the sport. He has six grandchildren — including an eighth-grade basketball player in the Guilford school system — and another grandchild on the way.
“Tyler calls me a sideline coach,” he said.