Whole Lota Love
Former students rally around retired EBHS coach as he faces his greatest challenge.
By Mitch Traphagen
Good things don’t just happen by accident. Behind every achievement, success story, and inspirational act is a man like Tom Lota. In times past, people would say that when they made Tom, they broke the mold. In his heart are goodness, compassion, honesty and commitment. He is a rarity, a man standing tall among men. He doesn’t seem to see that. He sees himself as a simple man, an everyman, as it were. He is not. He is the role model that so many people seek and need. He has made a difference. He has changed lives.
Tom Lota, now 61-years-old with a healthy tan, a palpable glow, and a youthful smile, was an educator and wrestling coach at East Bay High School. He retired more than a decade ago but he has not been forgotten. Some of his students and athletes followed in his footsteps to become educators and coaches themselves. Others grew up, found success and sent their own children on to Tom for education, not just from textbooks, but in life through lessons learned on the wrestling mat. Whether in a classroom or gymnasium, Tom taught lessons that kids were years from learning. He set the foundation; he gave them something to believe in. He gave them reasons to believe in themselves.
He would spend mornings and lunch hours walking the hallways looking for athletes to join the wrestling team, undiscovered athletes. He would frequently find them in the drama classes taught by his wife Lynne.
Sometimes they just needed someone to believe in them.
Tom built an incredible record of success. In his 25 years of coaching, he built a record of 227 wins, 71 losses along with seven district championships, nine Western Conference National Division titles, one regional title, and many top ten finishes in the Florida state finals. In 2006, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
But he doesn’t take any credit for it. Despite the fact that a high school coach can only work with the student population he is given, he won’t take any credit. He gives it to the kids.
“I was lucky,” Tom said. “I always got the cream of the crop. I got the best athletes. I used to walk the halls looking for them. I would look around, see an athlete and ask them to join. They would sometimes need a little encouragement to come out for sports. I would try to do that day after day.”
Lynne Lota, however, knows better. She knows that he had something special in working with kids. They trusted him; they believed him — and that is something coming from adolescents.
“He could say anything he wanted to them,” Lynne said. “He just had the touch.”
According to Lynne, his compassion and sincerity are just a natural part of Tom. It is who he is. But even here, Tom won’t take credit for himself.
“I learned about being honest from her,” he said while looking at Lynne. “I believe that the way the kids had success…I didn’t do it. They did it. The success that we had as a team was amazing. There are kids that should not have won, but did. They believed in themselves.”
Most importantly, Tom Lota believed in them first. He supported them and challenged them, and when they walked away with diploma in hand, they began to understand the dedication and support that is inherent in Coach Lota. They understood, or at least were beginning to, the challenges he presented to them. And as they walked into their own lives, Tom never forgot them.
His students and athletes never forgot him, either. Earlier this year Tom Lota was diagnosed with Stage IV colon and liver cancer. It is the last of cancer’s numerical stages. Upon hearing the news, David Baker, a family friend, decided to organize a benefit dinner as a fundraiser. He set up a page on Facebook to get the word out.
Within 24 hours, more than a thousand people signed up on the page, many sharing memories and prayers. Despite retiring over a decade ago, more than a thousand students and friends turned out for the man who believed in them. Many have said they became what they are because of him. One former student posted a note to the page saying, “with all my love... thanks for making me more than I should have been.”
Additionally, hundreds of people have signed an online petition to request that East Bay High School change the name of the gymnasium to the Coach Tom Lota Gymnasium. There is no resistance to the idea from the school. Tom has earned that honor, for the success and distinction he brought to the school and to the student athletes. In that gymnasium, he helped kids along the difficult path of becoming adults. They became winners in their school and in a sport, setting the stage for winning in life.
If Tom feels sorry for himself, it doesn’t show. It is only when talking about his students and his athletes, how their lives have turned out, that tears come to his eyes. He may not take credit for their success, but it is impossible to miss.
“It’s very gratifying” he said softly. “I’m very lucky to see some of myself in them.”
Seeing and bringing forth potential in a young person is a rare gift, and it is something that is part of Tom. Yet he sees it as a gift his students have given him. According to Lynne, he saw the potential in kids that others may have written off as lost. He took in kids in trouble. He helped them find their course. He drove them home after practice. He believed in them and he earned their trust.
And now, by the hundreds, they are coming back for him.
That Tom is fighting for his life is not visible in his smile or in his glow. You can feel his presence. I could feel the trust he instilled in so many thousands of students. His eyes only reveal the love he has for his kids and for Lynne. Perhaps there is some concern for her in his eyes, too. When I asked either a question, they would both turn to look at each other, clearly knowing what the other was thinking. The invisible connection they have is also a gift.
As I backed out of their driveway and pulled away from their Riverview home, I saw Tom and Lynne standing on their front step, arms around each other waving goodbye to me. I suddenly understood why so many former students are rallying and praying for this man. I had only known him for an hour, but somehow he let me see into his heart. Seeing him and Lynne wave goodbye brought a lump to my throat and tangibly confirmed what I saw — trust, compassion, honesty and so much more. I drove off knowing that Coach Tom Lota is a man I could believe in.
The Coach Tom Lota Fundraiser Dinner will be held at the International Independent Showmen’s Association hall on Riverview Drive May 1 at 5:30 p.m. The event will include a cash bar, raffle and silent auctions. For more information visit the Lota Dinner Fund Raiser page on Facebook. Tickets are available online at www.dreammakerstampa.com.
To send donations or for correspondence, write to 10407 Sedgebrook Dr, Riverview, FL 33569. Donations should be made payable to Lynne or Tom Lota.
The petition to name East Bay High School’s gymnasium in honor of Coach Lota may be found on the web at www.PetitionOnline.com/maglyn1/petition.html
Follow Mitch Traphagen on Twitter