As Jim Foster grows older, his thoughts often flood back to those he has known who have passed on.
Maybe that’s expected for a 64-year-old who spent three years in the Army, including 18 months in Vietnam, before a lifetime as a teacher and coach.
“As you age you start to think a little bit more relative to guys who you went to school with and served with that died in the service,” he said softly. “They come more to your mind.”
That his Ohio State team opens its season Friday on an aircraft carrier, surrounded by servicemen and women who are sacrificing for their country, adds to and enhances his memories.
His war was a long time ago. He’s lost touch with many of his friends with whom he served. Yet he feels it is important that his players realize the sacrifices made so that simple games can be played where wars used to be fought.
“When we played Mississippi, we went to the Civil Rights Museum. When we played in Philadelphia, we went to the Constitution Center. Now we’re going to be on a battleship,” Foster said of Friday night’s game pitting No. 19 Ohio State against No. 7 Notre Dame on the deck of the USS Yorktown, docked in Charleston, S.C. “It’s supposed to be about education and I think oftentimes we lose sight of that. The reality of the experience is so significant that you would be remiss if you didn’t have your players go through it.”
Foster has been a college coach since 1978, first at Saint Joseph’s in his hometown of Philadelphia, then at Vanderbilt and now Ohio State. With a record of 765-294 in 34 seasons, with 26 NCAA tournament appearances, he’s a member of the 2013 induction class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
That’s what he’s known for — his coaching. But a seldom-told story of his time before that is instructive about the cerebral man on the sidelines, his reading glasses dangling from a chain around his neck.
He served in the Army from 1966 to 1969, half of that time spent in Vietnam where he worked on a supply unit of the 4th Infantry Division, stocking gunships and helicopters.
“I think any experience like that, between the ages of 18 and 21 is going to have a significant impact on your thought process about a lot of things,” he said, as always choosing his words carefully. “It was just such a different era and a different time in terms of who was in the military. A very small segment of the population represents the military anymore. In that day and age, especially with the draft, it was just a wider range of folks.”
He was nearing the end of his tour of duty. His brother John had been drafted and was in camp in the States.
It’s unclear whose idea it was, but the idea was proposed to Foster that if he re-upped for another six months of duty in Vietnam, his brother wouldn’t have to go.
“As it was explained to me, they wanted us — myself and another fellow — to consider staying another six months. And part of that discussion, I was made aware that by extending ... that only one family member at that time could be in a war zone,” he said. “And my brother was in the infantry and I was in a different venue, so I — my parents had two special-needs children and already had one son in the service. They didn’t need the aggravation of another.”
So Foster agreed to extend his stay in the war zone. It was a sacrifice that he seldom discusses. He reluctantly confides that he and his brother have.
“We’ve had some interesting discussions relative to it over the years,” he said.
Asked if his brother had expressed to him how thankful he was of Foster’s selfless offer, he slowly added, “I would say yes to that question.”
John Foster is now retired. Married and a father of two, he worked a variety of jobs, including one for Sun Oil Company. Jim proudly says that John was required to know the precise location of all of Sun’s supertankers, wherever they were on the high seas.
So Jim Foster, who gave so much to his family while a soldier, now is preparing a group of young women to play a basketball game on a warship. The irony does not elude him.
It will be an emotional time of reflection, in the midst of the hectic logistics of practice and games and interviews.
Like his brother, Jim has a wife (Donna) and two children, sons Christian and Andrew. They are regulars at Ohio State’s games, with his two grandsons chasing basketballs half their size around on the court after the arena has emptied.
The Foster family will also be a part of the trip to the USS Yorktown.
“One of my grandsons will be on the ship on Friday,” Jim said. “The 5-year-old gets to come to that game and the 3-year-old gets to go ride on the Polar Express with his mother.
“I’m not sure which is more excited.”