EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - George Wilkinson helped develop the boys track and field team at Egg Harbor Township High School through his leadership.
And three years after he retired due to his diagnosis with melanoma, he inspired them on the day they won their biggest event in school history.
Wilkinson, 58, was an honored guest at the team's annual banquet Tuesday at Harbor Pines Golf Club. The team won the Group IV South Jersey sectional championship for the first time in May.
Wilkinson, who coached the team for 29 years, called head coach Ryan "Smitty" Smith at 6 a.m. the day of the meet and said he needed to talk to the team.
"He gave them (each) a Texas quarter. Coach Wilk is originally from Texas, and he said, 'Texas means a lot to me in my life. Find something that means a lot to you,'" Smith said. "A lot of the kids ran with it in their sock and carried it with them (at the sectional championships). He's so special because of his ability to lead and share his knowledge with everyone he comes into contact with."
Wilkinson was diagnosed with type 4 melanoma in 2010 but remains close to the team, attending many events and practices.
"I spend a lot of time with them. It's very important to me the team stays healthy and productive," he said. "When you ask people about (the school), they'll tell you about the track team. It takes a lot of hard work."
The team has created the Wilk Award, given to a student at the banquet who is exceptional in many different ways, just like the coach for whom it's named, Smith said.
This year, Wilkinson presented it to Paul Caplan, a senior who competed in the javelin.
Caplan, 18, said Wilkinson was a big inspiration to the team all year long.
After one meet during the year, Caplan received a voicemail from the coach congratulating him.
"After that I'd call him after every meet and tell him how I did," he said.
At the sectional championships, Wilkinson handed Caplan his quarter right before he competed. Caplan taped the quarter to his right arm and threw the javelin 165 feet - a personal best.
"It gave me a lift," Caplan said of seeing the coach.
Melanoma is treatable if detected early enough, but Wilkinson said he was misdiagnosed years ago and therefore his disease was not detected in time. Wilkinson now talks to coaches and athletes about the dangers of exposure to the sun.
"We're so unaware in this country - even still - of the troubles the sun causes with exposure," he said. "When I was growing up we had the excuse of ignorance. We weren't aware. But that's not the case anymore."
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