Mike Hulett, My Hero – By John Kessel

World ParaVolley Development Director and USA Volleyball’s director of sport development John Kessel wrote this wonderful tribute about former USA coach, World ParaVolley Board member and close friend Mike Hulett, who passed away last Thursday, aged 64.

Mike Hulett was one of my heroes as he put the preciousness of life in a perspective for me for over four decades. We first played against one another in the then USVBA Men’s tournaments which would start at 8 am and end in the wee hours of the next day, thanks to sideout scoring. Somewhere along the way his diabetes got worse and to save his life, over about a 2 year period, the doctors had to amputate all four of his limbs, 3 above the main joint. That simply detoured his life from player to coach, though when asked how tall he wanted to be on his prosthetic limbs, he said to make him 6’4” so he would be taller than me…little did he know, even when he was ultimately confined to his wheelchair and could no longer walk like a tripod, that he still was far taller than me in so many areas beyond actual height.

Getting him to coach our USA Sitting men in 1996, and continue in 2000, meant we got to brainstorm how to grow this area of the sport together. When the Paralympic standing men’s program ceased after 2000, in order to add the women’s sitting discipline for 2004, Mike was my logical choice to take on the challenge of starting a USA team from scratch – from inaugural tryouts, thru training and qualification. He always sought to bring the science and research impacting the sport into the gym more intensely than most. Along with Roger Neppl, who was our new USAV Disabled Commission Vice President, we were lucky to have Denise VanDeWalle as assistant coach. When we qualified by beating Brazil in Brazil for the last spot for the Athen’s Paralympics, the women were rightfully thrilled. Our staff however knew we had to help a very young team, nearly half still in high school or younger, experience and learn from the next level, and the Netherlands women helped us by adding the USA to a European event in May, about 100 days before the start of Athens. We went 0-33 and realized what we needed to do next.

All this time, Mike worked full time in data entry for Walgreens corporate offices, while giving him the latitude to pursue his Paralympic leadership. That is one part that amazed my kids – that Mike kept working at a full-time job, AND coached both internationally and for USA Volleyball. Sure, some days at our training camp we would have to take him to the hospital to get back in synch, which even let me run a practice or two but the only thing he wanted to do was see the teams and the coaches he was with, keep learning, keep getting better. At times he was ornery, barking orders more than teaching, from his viewpoint things could end anytime and he wanted to make every minute count. Roger and I roomed with him for weeks at events and when Mike would wake up mad about something, we both had learned to say – Mike you need to get rid of that attitude, or else I am not going to put you together.

We spent nearly a month in advance of Athens preparing the team at the Olympic Training Center here in Colorado Springs. To make things as gamelike as possible as Mike requested, I got USA Badminton to loan us a Teraflex court, as that is what we would be sliding on in Athens, and a crowd noise loop to broadcast in the gym. Mike barked and pushed and learned about his athletes, who we had chosen to represent the USA less than a year before, and then we flew to Athens together. The United charter pilot on the flight over thanked all the “Special Olympians on this flight” and I thought Mike and about a third of the team might break down the cockpit door in anger. Thanks to Paralympic leaders like Mike we now celebrate and understand the differences between the unique athletes of both groups, and have programs which are some of the best in the world.

The women’s team began its remarkable Paralympic medal run there in Athens, upsetting Slovenia in five sets and Ukraine in four sets in pool play, and everyone one said “We just saw you 100 days ago and you were terrible, where did you come from? For me it is simple, from the hard work instilled by Mike that every single player showed, as effort is one of the things we can control in this random, chaotic, wonderful team sport we call volleyball – sitting included. The ladies went on to defeat Slovenia again in four sets for the bronze medal, and have never looked back. He coached them to silver in 2008, and then turned the helm over to Bill Hamiter. Lora Webster, 4x Paralympic medalist and sitting volleyball star put it simply – the two most important things in her life are because of Mike – her USA team selection plus training at the start, and his allowing a 19 year old player on the national team to meet a male player at the New Orleans US Open — who then became her husband. That too shows the impact of Huey.

His mom, who passed away just a few years ago, was a saint, caring for her son as a loving mom does for over half a century. The docs said Mike would not live past 50…and of course he proved them way wrong, with much of his junior volleyball leadership blossoming as he formed his girls AND boys club – aptly named Adversity in 1997. His commitment to learning meant I was lucky to teach several CAP courses with him at his facility, and in other places around the world. He served on the board of directors for World ParaVolley until his health situation made international travel just a bit too difficult. Many readers likely saw Mike at Qualifiers and Nationals for both boys and girls, and know how much he loved to talk shop – both to learn and to teach. I am also very thankful for all the time my own kids got to shag balls for the teams when they visited, and talk with Mike about life and volleyball. He always listened and cared.

I will close with two favorite stories about my friend and hero. He spent decades growing the game coaching juniors – and was part of our USAV Junior Assembly meetings all that time. Roger Neppl tells how in the first set of meetings he attended with Mike,” the chair asked for someone to be secretary/take notes. Everyone looked down at their shoes…and Mike raised his claw and took notes with his two metal claws on a laptop.” That is Mike, doing what needs to be done. The second was when I knew Mike would be getting USA Volleyball’s highest honor, the Frier which came as a surprise to him. His family was “hiding” in the back of the hall, and I asked Olympian Scott Fortune to sit with us to keep Mike “busy.” Scott did his job and I got a great video of the shock and disbelief of Huey getting selected and rolled up in his chair to the stage, as his family appeared to celebrate with him.

I am going to miss interacting with Mike more than these words will ever come close to expressing, and am just thankful for all the time we got to share around our wonderful volleyball family.

Other Key Content

Mikey Makes the Serve
USA Volleyball Tribute
World ParaVolley Tribute