Mumbai: Better known as the hockey coach of children of a lesser god, Merzban Patel couldn't have asked for a nicer start to the Parsi New Year. On Saturday, he learnt that along with Rambir Singh Khokar (Kabaddi), Sanjay Bhardwaj (Cricket), he had been conferred the Dronacharya award (lifetime category). What made it twice as much sweeter was that not only had he bagged national honour, he had also been named the recipient of the Shiv Chhatrapati award by his home state, Maharashtra.
For 44 years, Patel, better known as 'Bawa' in hockey circles, has been coaching children from slums in the game, which has been his lifelong passion. "I was not ready to apply for the award but was persuaded to do so by former Olympians and players. It is at their insistence I did so and it is because of them that my work has been appreciated," said Bawa, talking to The Free Press Journal on Saturday. Bawa's life has been full of complications - professionally and personally. He is coach at the Children's Academy (Malad) and Our Lady of Dolours (Marine Lines) and has been running a hockey club, Bombay Republicans, for nearly five decades. But as with all such earnest endeavours, there is always a shortage of funds. This means, the club must fall back on the benevolence of some of its famous alumni.
"The going has been tough. One time, I was taking my team to Pune for a tournament and I lost my wallet. But luckily for us, a Jesuit priest came to our rescue and gave the boys accommodation and helped me with money. I thank him from the bottom of my heart but sadly, have forgotten his name," says Patel, reminiscing about the kids' away tournaments. Luckily for him, this sports chronicler is able to recall the name of this benefactor -- Fr Andrew Fernandes, the erstwhile principal of St Vincent's High School, Camp Pune.
On the personal front, at 69, Bawa has health complications, which include a recently botched-up glaucoma operation and an impending cataract operation. But impaired vision is hardly going to to keep him from his daily training schedule for young school- and club-level wards. It is this undying passion for the national game that also won him the prestigious Shiv Chhatrapati award, Maharashtra's highest sports honour, also announced on Saturday. Naturally, he is immensely pleased. "I have been coaching since 1975. I thank the former Olympians and players and others who nominated me. I am overjoyed. I feel that all those years of hard work, training kids on concrete at the Bombay Hockey Association before they moved to astro turf, was worth it. Hockey ne mera jeevan safal kar diya ("Hockey has made my life successful)," is how he sees it.