Willie Lopez considers himself lucky.
The personal fitness teacher at Braddock High, who turns 58 in September, has been in love with coaching since he was 13 years old. Getting a chance to do that for more than 40 years — whether it be in baseball, football, cross-country, tennis or bowling — is something he has treasured.
“What hooked me were my teachers,” said Lopez, who began coaching 6-year-olds at his father’s baseball academy at Flagami Park when he was 13.
“Fred Fishel at Fairlawn Elementary. Wayne Welsh, who coached everything at Kinloch Park Junior High and then Charlie Yanda and Walt Allison at South Miami. From elementary to this day they made a difference in my life and set me off on that path. How many people know what they want to do when they’re that young?”
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Lopez, set to retire in two years, would love to coach for the rest of his life. But his body won’t let him. Little by little the effects of Adrenomyelodystrophy, a rare degenerative disease, have been crippling his lower body over the last 20 years.
On Wednesday morning, Lopez was honored by The Miami Herald with its annual Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at the All-Dade Athletic Awards breakfast at Jungle Island. The award is presented annually at the event to individuals in the local high school sports community who have exhibited extraordinary courage in the face of adversity.
In 2004, Lopez decided to quit coaching baseball at Braddock — shortly after an embarrassing fall on his way to the mound to talk to his pitcher. Now, a decade later, he uses a rollator to make his way around as the school’s girls bowling coach.
But none of those physical struggles — not even a heart attack in February 2012 — has affected his love for coaching or teaching.
“As soon as the doctors let me I was back at work,” said Lopez, who has two sons Steven, 27, and Eric, 24.
“My older brother Mario and I both have the disease. He’s disabled now. About 20 years ago when I started feeling weird I thought I had cancer. It wasn’t until my brother started doing research and we went sent our blood to Duke University that we figured out what it was.
“When they sent me back a catalog of wheelchairs after we sent them our blood that was the first time I figured I’ve got something that could be crippling.”
Kevin Whelan, the former athletic director at Braddock who now coaches golf at Reagan High School, said Lopez’s courage battling the disease has always inspired him and many other coaches at Braddock.
“He’s the ultimate coaches’ coach,” Whelan said. “You’re talking about a guy who had a quadruple bypass and a pacemaker put in his heart and anytime we needed a coach to fill a spot he was the first one to raise his hand.”
Baseball has and always will be Lopez’s love. His late father left Cuba and signed a contract with the Washington Senators in 1949 when he was 18. He eventually and raised a family of five in South Florida and helped start Flagami Khoury League.
After graduating from Miami-Dade Community College and FIU, Lopez started his high school coaching career at South Miami, his alma mater, in 1981. He spent nine seasons there serving as an assistant football coach under Yanda and the head baseball coach before moving to Braddock when it opened in 1990. In 1994, Lopez led the Bulldogs to the state final four in baseball, his crowing achievement.
Lopez said he wishes he still had the legs that allowed him to pitch batting practice. Now, he teaches solely with his voice.
“After the county dropped health because of budget cuts personal fitness coaches have tried to do as much as they can to teach kids about the heart, lungs, cholesterol and why we exercise,” Lopez said. “Teaching 16- and 14-year olds about heart attacks, it’s not something I thought would happen to me when I was their age. But it’s important to keep sending that message.
“I’m very happy doing what I do. It’s the best job in the world.”