Great coaches have always been known for imparting life skills as well as sports skills.

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is remembered as much for his insistence on the constant pursuit of excellence as he is for his championship teams.

Longtime Braves Manager Bobby Cox is as famous for teaching the young men under his charge to play baseball "the right way" as he is for his 14 consecutive division crowns.

And Dean Smith is esteemed as much for his compassion and his commitment to social justice as he is for building a national basketball powerhouse at North Carolina.

Of course, even more influential on the lives of young people than professional or college coaches are the men and women who coach high school or middle school sports or in recreational leagues for even younger athletes.

These coaches have the opportunity to teach their players the intricacies of the game, but they also have the opportunity to teach the intricacies of life, what is important and what is not.

A shining example of a coach who seizes that opportunity is Phillip Russ, baseball coach for the Bessemer City Yellow Jackets.

This season, Russ' team has adopted the slogan "Embrace Differences," for as Russ explained, "We really take time to talk to players about accepting everybody. Of course, my goal is to win ball games. But we're truly in this to develop young men."

Last Friday night, Russ and his players embraced the part of our population which deals with autism, a condition characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

As part of "Autism Awareness Night," the team did not wear its traditional green and gold jerseys but chose instead to wear specially-designed multi-colored hats and uniforms.

Joining with the baseball team in this special recognition were the Bessemer City softball team and the girls soccer team.

In addition to the special uniforms, autistic individuals were invited to throw out the first balls in both the baseball and softball games and to serve as team captain for the soccer team.

The goal, as Russ pointed out, was to emphasize the common links of humanity which bind us all together and the need to embrace differences and diversity.

"We build around the philosophy of love," the coach said. "You don't want to seclude or segregate yourself in the school building."

To that, we say "Amen."

And we praise not just the Bessemer City coaches for their embrace of diversity, but the hundreds of coaches all around Gaston County who teach vital life lessons and necessary life skills to our young people at all athletic levels.