On The Ball -- Strong as Steele
After news concerning the health of Indian River’s longtime math teacher and member of the athletic department Ray Steele surfaced over social media networks last week, an overwhelming ache shot through my entire body. Friends and family shared their concern, informing others that Steele suffered a serious heart attack and was admitted into Peninsula Regional Medical Center.
Though he just entered his first year as the school’s varsity football head coach last fall, Steele has always been a vital part of the program’s success. Perhaps the only thing more recognizable than his headstrong work ethic and a surefire pride in the accomplishments of his students and athletes is a beaming, contagious smile that accompanies every handshake and greeting that Steele makes.
We pride ourselves here at Coastal Point in keeping a neutral voice in our stories, but as a sports writer who followed an Indian River football team through their most triumphant season last year since the 1969 establishment of the Indian River School District, it was virtually impossible not to let emotions get the best of me when I heard Steele had fallen ill.
Back in 2006, I stepped onto the newspaper’s staff as a full-time reporter, primarily as a feature writer, as we had already been employing a sports writer. Even then, despite growing up in Maryland, I was quick to learn of the honor and respect that resonated through the halls of Indian River High School. A few years later, as I filled the role as the paper’s full-time sports writer, it quickly became evident that the gratification extended well beyond the school building.
At practice, then-head coach Jim Bunting brought dignity to the field, transforming a group of athletes from teammates to a family. Steele, who assisted Bunting for well over two decades earlier, exuded the same leadership as his assistant coach and, in turn, received the same respect – and deservingly so – from players and peers.
Before Bunting opted to retire and hand the reins over to Steele, the two shared more than 30 years together, coaching football alongside one another at the middle- and high-school levels. Their bond with the young athletes became something truly unique and special, and every player that suited up under their coaching knew it, too.
In his first year as head coach of the varsity team, Steele saw the Indians to an undefeated season in 2011, punctuated by a Division II state championship title, only the second in Indian River history.
I learned that in the few days after being admitted to Peninsula Regional, Steele was already making a full recovery from multiple blocked arteries, which had resulted in the heart attack. Respecting his privacy and improving heath, I waited before getting in touch with him shortly after his return home.
Prior to the conversation Steele and I shared, I thought about what he and Bunting had produced at Indian River, how the two had restored a revitalized pride and appreciation at the school and throughout its athletic department. I thought of the admiration that students, coaches, other teachers and even other school’s athletic programs have always displayed for Steele and the kind words they shared when speaking of him.
I also talked to Bunting, who spoke of him as being “like a little brother to me. He’s an incredible individual.” Todd Fuhrmann, Indian River athletic director, described Ray Steele as “a vital part of the Indian River family.”
Then, I thought of how the sidelines if the Indian River football field, under the Friday night lights, just wouldn’t be the same without Steele’s iconic grin congratulating the team as they triumphantly walk off the gridiron.
Thankfully, after an operation to set stints in his chest led to a speedy recovery, I was talking to the same Ray Steele that I had watched take to the football field week after week, the same coach that hoisted the Delaware Division II state trophy with a celebratory crowd of Indians back in December. Even over the phone, I could sense his smile, and the tone of his voice, grateful and jovial, indicated that he was gracious to have his health.
“I dodged a bullet,” he stated. “It was a wake-up call. But I’ll be back at it before long.” As the saying goes, you can’t keep a good man down, and Steele is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my tenure as a writer in the area. His strength, care and determination are matched by few, and I know I’m not the only one who is eager to see his smile back on the football sidelines next season.