Early Lessons – Part I

Being Competitive:

When I was growing up, I loved to play any type of game. Board games, card games, hide n seek, and video games although, the Atari system had just come out when I was heading into junior high school and by then, I was already someone who was not keen on sitting in front of a TV and playing games. Baseball and bowling were 2 games that I enjoyed and that I found that I could do well enough to be successful. I had some friends who would give me a call and ask me to join them at the baseball field to practice some hitting and fielding and I do not recall a time that when they asked, I said “No”. Since I was able to practice playing baseball throughout the summer months and I was able to bowl during the winter months, I became very good at both sports and found that I could be competitive in both. This was a blessing and a curse. My focus became so much concentrated on beating someone else during a competition that I lost the idea that I was playing a sport and that playing the sport was supposed to be teaching me life lessons and were meant to be fun. I pushed myself harder and harder in order to “win” any competition that I was fortunate enough to be in that I did not realize what I was losing was the main reason for competing; I was there to make myself better, challenge other competitors and share in the emotions of athletic competition.

High School and College Sports:

I was fortunate enough to play competitive baseball throughout high school and even went on to be on my college baseball team for one year before a shoulder injury ended my competitive baseball playing days. I was also blessed to be able to compete on my high school and college bowling teams. Again, the level of competition was exhilarating for me and I pushed myself harder and harder to be better than the “other guy”. I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with my inability to “win” every frame or inning that I was involved in. I became more focused on my stats and winning that I started to lose a passion for being in sports and I believe that I became depressed by not knowing why I was not good enough to win and I was no longer having fun!

Coaching, the Early Years:

When I took the head coaching reigns of a youth football team at the age of 23, I was all about seeing how good the players could be and about how the team could be better than any opponent that we faced. I slowly started to discover that this attitude was weighing more and more heavily on me and that I was beginning to push players more than I would have wanted to be pushed. I needed a reset and a rethinking of my approach to how I was coaching the players on the team and I found that approach as I started to read more about coaching young athletes and I even went so far as attending a Professional football camp in Pennsylvania which was geared towards youth and high school football coaches. The camp was put on by respected members of the professional football community and there were workshops from career military personnel as well as championship winning players and coaches at all levels of football. The camp helped me to refocus my mindset and to better understand what the young athlete needs in order to be successful, guidance, overcoming personal challenges and coaching leadership. The camp also shed some light on the importance of the lessons learned on the field of play that are going to benefit young men and women in and out of the competitive arena. I took to heart the lesson about sports offering an opportunity for personal growth. I learned that personal growth can come about through recognizing your own strength and using that strength to overcome some barrier to your success. Your success usually does not mean winning a game! It usually means confronting some fear or obstacle that you do not believe that you can face and doing something based on your own skills and desires to put that fear or obstacle in your rear-view mirror. It was through these lessons learned that I changed my approach to coaching and began to focus on life lessons that can come from being competitive in sports especially, team sports where you must have trust, camaraderie, personal goals and team play in order to be successful.

The Pick Six

The Setup:

When coaching it is hard to find a player who does not like a professional player. Most of the young athletes that I have had the pleasure of coaching talk about who they would like to be play like as they are playing the game of football. Additionally, nearly every youth player that I have coached has said that they would like to grow up and play professionally. In reality, the number of players in youth football who go on to play in college and the pros is very small. I think that at some point during their playing days these young athletes find other things that they become more passionate about and they go on to pursue those passions as opposed to football. It is great to be a coach and to watch how these young athletes emulate their favorite pro players. Some go as far as wanting to wear the same number as their favorite pro or college player and practice doing what their heroes do like, trying to catch the football with one hand or making hand gestures that they have seen from their “faves”.

The Cornerback Position:

During a recent season of coaching middle school football, I had the joy of watching and coaching one young man who was determined to play cornerback. The cornerback plays on the defense of the football team and the main job of the player in that position is to prevent the offensive receivers from catching the football when it is passed to them. One of the biggest plays a cornerback can make on the football field is to intercept a pass intended for an offensive receiver and return it for a defensive touchdown! Very rarely do defensive players have an opportunity to celebrate scoring a touchdown in a football game and when it happens, the defense tends to celebrate a little more emphatically than a running back or quarterback from the offense may do when they score.

The Finger Wag:

This talented young athlete, I will call “Ian” here, loved to play the position of cornerback and in fact, had played the position on a few occasions during his first couple of years of playing football with me as his coach. Ian had a great understanding of the cornerback position and in fact, one of his favorite professional players was an all-pro cornerback for a championship winning team. When Ian was on the football field, he gave everything that he had to do the best job that he was capable of doing and he had this infectious smile that one couldn’t help but return, when he flashed it! Ian practiced hard and during his third year of playing tackle football, he earned a opportunity to play cornerback. One of his favorite professional players would make a big play and then wave his index finger back and forth, in the direction of the offense, in the way that a mother may wave her index finger at a young child to let them know “not to try that again.” The message of the finger wag was very clear, “you are not to try that again or else things may go very bad for you!” Ian seemed to enjoy the finger wag when he made a stellar defensive play and had the opportunity to do it often while in practice and it felt like he may have the chance to do it in a game. The issue with the finger wag was that it was considered taunting and officials are trying to get that type of intimidation tactic out of the game of football and in fact, a player can be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct if, they choose to make that type of gesture on the field of play.

I’ll Take That, thank you:

Ian practice hard and worked diligently on his technique in order to be the best cornerback that he could be throughout summer practices and when the time came for our first controlled scrimmage against another opponent, he was on the field for the defense when it took the field during the first series of downs, as a cornerback. As circumstances presented, the team we were playing against was a passing team and they opened up their offensive series with 4 wide receivers and Ian was on the outside most wide receiver. The quarterback took the shotgun snap and dropped back to pass and flung a spiraled pass out to the wide receiver on Ian’s side of the field. Ian recognized the pass, stopped his back pedal and began to break on the pass. As the pass spiraled toward the receiver, I could see that there was a good chance that Ian would be able to cut underneath the wide receiver and intercept the ball. That is exactly what happened and since there was no one else on that side of the field, there was nothing but green grass for Ian to forge on his way to the opponent’s endzone and a touchdown for the defense! Since this was a scrimmage, the whistle blew early and Ian did not have the chance to celebrate however, he did flash that smile and after the series of downs had ended and we were getting set to go on offense, I saw that index finger wag! “Nice job Kid!”

The Snow Covered Field

The Coach in Me:

During the second year that I had the privilege to coach my oldest son, I was preparing for a regular season game one Saturday morning like I would be preparing for any other game. I was making sure that the water jug was filled, that I had all of the equipment necessary for playing the game and I was keeping an eye on my phone in case there were any last minute things that I needed to do. The coach in me was prepared for the game and was ready to leave the house and head for the football field. Now, the coach in me was very meticulous when it came to making sure that I had made all preparations for a fun and successful game day experience for parents, players and coaches. As a coach, I was ready!

The Father in Me:

My son was an astute student of the game of football and to be honest, he probably knew more about the game than any 8 year old kid I had ever met! He followed the game and he had a “favorite” pro team and he could talk about the positions, teams and plays with just about any adult and would be able to understand what others were talking about when it came to football, any other sport and more importantly about life in general. I have been blessed to be the father of 2 AMAZING young men and to watch them build their own life’s paths and then follow them with zeal, direction and diligence in order to make their life all that it can be. I could not be more proud as a Father and of seeing each of them grow up and become who they are today. The Father in me was never really ready for game day. It was a delicate balance to try and be a father and a coach and I am not really sure how I did. When the coach in me wanted to teach the players on the team, he had to treat every player the same way and I did my best to not show favoritism and especially not towards my son. I did however, want my son to experience all that he could while playing in sports and so, I gave him opportunities to play a number of positions and in all of my years of coaching, I have had few players who put forth as much effort at doing their best than my son did. He did not play a skill position, i.e. quarterback, running back or wide receiver however, he was respected as a teammate. This was evident when his teammates voted for him to play in the all-star game at the end of his final season in youth football. The Father in me on this game day was nervous and full of pride as we walked out the door to go to the game.

The Gloves:

When we arrived at the field for our contest, it was a little bit cold and breezy. My son had gloves on however, they were football gloves and were not really meant to keep his hands warm when the weather became cold. The coach in me directed all players to warm-up because it was getting colder and in order to get ahead of any complaints about it being cold, I wanted to get the players moving and get their blood flowing. It seemed to work as I did not get much complaining about the cold as we ran through our pregame activities. After the opening kickoff, our offense took the field and my son played guard on the offensive team. He needed to use his hands to get a hold of and block his defensive counterpart. He was able to do this during the first series of downs and it was a successful series of downs as we took an early lead. As the offense came off the field, I noticed that snowflakes started to fall and that the temperature began to drop. The gloves that my son was wearing were not going to be enough to keep his hands warm and the father in me began to panic as I did not think about grabbing warm gloves for my son as we left the house and I knew that this was going to cause an issue.

No Solution:

As the snow fell harder and harder and the green grass on the field began to be obscured by the whiteness of the fallen snow, I realized that my son’s hands were going to become painful and that this may cause a reduction in his desire to continue to play in the game. As the offense came off the field during the second half of the game, my son came over to the sidelines and sat down on the ground. He had a heavy jacket at the game and he put it around his should pads and as I walked towards him as his father, I noticed that his face was red and that he seemed to be shivering. Father-mode kicked in and I asked him about what I may be able to do to help and as I recall his response was something to the effect that his hands were too cold and he was quite upset! I slowly removed his gloves and I saw that his hands were beet red and they were very cold to the touch. I began to blow on them in order to try and get more blood circulating through them and hopefully, warm them up a bit. I felt hopeless and I wasn’t sure what I would be able to do to help my son feel better. The coach in me shut off and I wholly tried my best to provide some comfort to my son. The balance that I knew that I had to have in order to be a good coach was superseded by the overwhelming panic that my son was in pain and that I was unable to help him.

Positive Outcome and Lesson:

When the game ended, I stood and gave a very brief post-game speech to the team and then picked up everything and rushed to the car. I turned on the heater full blast and covered my son’s hands with anything that I could find in the vehicle. He did warm up and was fine. I learned a lot on that day and throughout the time that I had on the sideline with my son. I learned that no matter what happens, the Father in me will come out and do what he can to provide help and guidance when it is necessary and asked for from either of my sons and I also learned that being a parent is an incredibly emotional job and that it is also the greatest job that I have ever had! I take the lessons that I have learned as a coach and parent and try to act that way towards every player that I coach. My greatest joy in life is in being called “Dad” and it gives me pleasure to know that being a Dad to my sons also meant that I was also a coach to them!

The 10 Yard Line

Witnessing Agony:

When I was 13 years old, I watched Super Bowl XIII between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the 3rd quarter of that game with the Steelers leading 21-14 the Cowboys were in position to score a touchdown and tie the game. As the Cowboys quarterback dropped back to pass his tight end broke wide open in the middle of the endzone and the pass hit the receiver right in the chest. Unfortunately for the Cowboys the ball bounced off the chest of the receiver and landed harmlessly on the turf resulting in an incomplete pass and the Cowboys needing to settle for a field goal which, instead of having the score tied at 21, left them still trailing by 4 points1. As a teenager watching that game and the recognizable agony on the receiver’s face as he walked off the field, I did not think about what emotions were going through his mind, at that moment. After all, I was a Steelers’ fan and “my” team was winning and eventually went on to win the game. When I began coaching football in my early 20’s, I did not realize how much emotion would be displayed by the coaches, fans, parents and athletes! I would soon find out that football can and does bring on many different emotions and as a coach, it is necessary to be able to deal with those emotions in order to stay focused on each play. The following happened at the end of regulation of a championship game during my 24th year of coaching.

The Rematch:

I was an offensive assistant head coach for a second generation player (I was coaching a son of a former player of mine and that former player was one of our defensive coaches) and during the regular season the team that I was coaching, the Raiders played against the Warriors. The 2 teams battled hard in the first quarter however, after that tight first quarter the Warriors ran away with the game and gave the Raiders their only loss of the regular season. It was apparent to most of the coaches for the Raiders that the Warriors would be a tough team to beat and it was also discussed among the coaches how much we wanted to get the chance to play against them again. The Raiders easily made it through the playoffs as did the Warriors and as hoped by the coaches, we did get another chance to play them and this time, it would be in the championship game. I remember the day. It was windy and cold and the players were excited about being able to play in a real stadium with artificial grass and lights and fans in the stands! The game was one for the ages! Early in the game, the Raiders dominated the line of scrimmage and before halftime had taken a 6-0 lead. The lead did not last very long as the Warriors turned a broken play into a game tying score and after the missed extra point try, the game was tied at 6 and stayed that way until late in the 4th quarter. With less than 1 minute to go in the game and the score still tied, the Raiders had moved into a position where they would be able to take the lead and in effect, end the game with any type of score. The Raiders were down to their last time and with about 25 seconds left in the 4th quarter and the ball resting inside the Warriors’ 20 yard line, the head coach took the timeout in order to make sure that the right play was called and the right players were on the field. The play that was called was a reverse. A reverse is a play where the quarterback takes the ball from the center and hands it off to a player going in one direction and that player then hands the ball off to another offensive player heading the opposite direction. This play is meant to deceive the defensive team into believing that the play is going in one direction when in fact it is heading in the opposite direction. A reverse can open up an entire side of the field where the runner has a clear path to run into the end zone untouched and when this play was run, that is exactly what the Raiders runner had, a clear path to the winning touchdown.

The kid with the ball for the Raiders was one of the fastest kids on the field and when he got the ball and the coaches all saw that there was no one standing in his way to the winning score well, we all started to high five each other and cheer him on. We watched as this young athlete took stride after stride down the sideline with nothing but green turf and the goal line in front of him and we were beaming from ear to ear! He passed the 20, the 15 and then was slowing just a bit as he realized that he was about to score the championship game winning touchdown and then, he fell untouched to the turf! What? How could that be? There was not another player within 10 yards of him!

In that moment, the fans for the Raiders became silent and the clock continued to tick down towards 0. There was not going to be a game winning touchdown celebration and in fact, the focus now needed to be on the young man and what he was feeling. The head coach stood frozen and watched as the young man walked toward the sideline and I noticed that he was distraught and his tear soaked face was red and he was shaking. I thought back to that January evening in 1979 as I watched that receiver for the Cowboys drop a sure touchdown and I remember seeing how upset he was when he walked off the field and I stopped for a minute to gather my thoughts. What could I possibly say to this young athlete that could make him feel any better? I had never had something like that happen to me. I was his coach and I looked into the stands and found his parents. His mother was sitting down and was looking at him with love in her eyes and his father was standing and had a concerned look on his face. I walked over to the player and decided not to try to console him or let him know that it was going to be okay and instead, I had him remove his helmet and I told him to look in the stands at his parents and all of the family members that were there to watch him play. “Do you know how proud of you they are?”, I asked him. I told him to wave to his parents and his mother blew him a kiss and his father flexed his muscles and pointed directly at his son. Sometimes an emotional event needs few words and more understanding and mostly, it just needs love and kindness!

1Super Bowl XIII – Wikipedia

The Goal Line Stand – Part II

I am going to start this post with an acknowledgement and a big “Thank you!” to my good friend and outstanding photographer, Tim! Without him and his camera, I would not have many of the memories that I am able to share with you on this site. Tim, thank you for being there with your camera and your passion over the past 31 years!!!

The Freshman Squad:

During my first year of coaching high school football, I was able to handle some head coaching duties of the freshman team as part of a three-headed coaching staff. On this freshman team there was a lot of talent and the athletes wanted to play and get better. The biggest thing that impressed me about the players on this team was their willingness to be able to trust one another in nearly every situation and this was evident during all of the games during that undefeated season and I will share one particular story with you here in this post. The freshman squad was made up of about 30 athletes and each of them was able to play a significant amount during that season because of 2 things: 1) they were willing to listen and learn from the coaches and 2) they worked hard and did their best to play as one unit when they were on the field. When a coach is blessed with athletes that are willing to have this kind of work ethic and attitude towards the game, their teammates and themselves then, coaching is easy! Since I was coaching at a school with a smaller enrollment and the state of Wisconsin had not yet moved to a single governing entity for all high schools, the team that I was coaching was lumped into a conference with some schools that had 2, 3 and 4 times as many athletes to choose from and some of those schools were all boys schools. This meant that the “Angels” (the team that I was a coach for) needed to have that work ethic and believe in themselves and each other in order to be able to be successful as a team.

Up By 1 Score:

During one particular game near the city of Madison against a school that had a larger enrollment than the Angels did, we had played hard and were battling for every yard that we were gaining and it was evident that we were outmatched. The size of the players on the opposing team was much bigger however, I could tell early on in the first half that the Angels were there to play. The players on the defense were determined to let the other team know that if they were carrying the ball then, they were going to have 5 or 6 defenders right there to stop them and if there was a pass, it seemed like the quarterback had little or no time to find a receiver and most of the time needed to run away from several defensive players. With the score tied at 0-0 in the third quarter the Angels got a break when a short pass turned into a long gain and set up the offense with a first down and goal at the opponent’s 5 yard line. It took only one play to get on the scoreboard and when the extra point was no good, the score stood at 6-0 in favor of the Angels. The score stayed that way until late in the fourth quarter.

The Goal Line Stand:

Late in the fourth quarter with the afternoon sun beating down on the field, coaches, officials and players the Angels defense began to tire and the opposition drove down inside the 10 yard line. With all of our timeouts remaining in the second half (each team in football gets 3 timeouts per half), the three of us coaches started talking about when we would use our timeouts. It was evident to us that the defense was tired and that calling a timeout while we were on defense may give some of the players who had been on the field for a long time, a bit of a rest. However, calling a timeout on defense would also take away a timeout that we may need if the opposing team scored and we got the ball back and needed to score again. The conversations between the coaches were in passing and quick and it was decided to use a timeout to give the defensive players a break. With less than 2 minutes to go in the game and the ball on the 2 yard line, the defense walked toward the sideline and each player grabbed for a water bottle. With the sweat pouring down their faces and many of them red in the face and breathing heavily, the coaches looked at them and let them know that this game was theirs. I looked over the defense and gave them the play and then said to them that the heels of their shoes were the “line in the sand”. Those heels had not budged all day and they had already proved that they were capable of doing it so, one more play was all that they needed. I do remember one of the players saying “but coach, it’s only third down” and then another player saying that third down is the only play that they needed to deal with! All of the players (not just those who were playing defense) came together in a single team huddle and as one unit they counted “1, 2, 3, DEFENSE!” When the play started with the snap of the ball, our defensive ends were steadfast in blocking the corners and the “line in the sand” that had been talked about did not move and neither did the offense, fourth and goal! The offense used their final timeout and the Angels’ defense came back over to the sideline and this time, they had a look in their eyes of determination and satisfaction. As they huddled around the coaches and each other one of the players said, “now we can stop them on fourth down!” This time as they all put their hands in the middle and started to chant, it was something that made me confident that there was no way the offense was going to score on this play. The chant went “1, 2, 3, TEAM!” When the quarterback received the ball from the center and turned to hand the ball of to a running back who was directly behind him, there were 3 Angels’ defenders there to rudely greet the running back and drop him before he could make a move. The play resulted in a 4 yard loss and since it was fourth down, the ball belonged to our offense! Victory formation in football involves three running backs standing close to the quarterback when he receives the direct snap from the center and those running backs gather closer to the quarterback after he gets the snap and with the running backs huddled around the quarterback, the quarterback falls to one knee and the clock begins to run. Since the opposing team was out of timeouts, there was no way for the clock to stop and it ticked down to 0:00. As far as bus rides back to the high school at the end of a football game, I have never been on a better one nor, have I ever been on a smellier bus before or since!

The Goal Line Stand – Part I

The Plan:

During my second year of coaching, I had at least 4 players who were able to score from any place on the field. Each of these players made significant impacts on how we were able to roll through the regular season undefeated. I tried not to rely heavily on any one player and wanted to make sure that every player felt as if they were able to contribute to the success of the team and also grow and learn in ways that were meaningful to them. It turned out that the players on the team that I coached in 1990 were not only skilled but they seemed to find joy in everything that they did, as a team! During the semi-final game that year, it just so happened that one of the skill players on the team Lamar, carried the load and led us to victory with his running ability. I had a feeling that as we moved into the practice week prior to the championship game that the coaching staff was going to need to find a way to use Lamar as a decoy and possibly have this play to our advantage. During practices that week, I made it clear that we would need to execute this plan to the best of our ability and in the end, we would have a lot of fun! The players practiced hard and the plan of deception was in place and now, it was time to endure one more sleepless night prior to the championship game and let the players do their jobs and enjoy their moment.

First Touching:

We received the kickoff to start the game and as I had expected the opposing team did not kick the ball deep to Lamar and instead decided to kick the ball along the ground so that one of the other players would have nothing else to do besides fall on the ball and secure possession for us. It was time for me to put the “decoy plan” into motion. On our first offensive play of the game, I split my 2 running backs with Lamar being on the right side of the quarterback, roughly 3 yards behind him and the second running back, “Junior” who was much smaller and just as fast as Lamar 2 yards away from Lamar on the same direct line, in the backfield. The design of the play was to have Lamar run diagonally at the snap of the ball behind the quarterback and directly in front of Junior, while Junior stood still and waited until the quarterback faked giving the ball to Lamar. This would hopefully cause the defensive players to start to move towards where Lamar was running and when the quarterback faked the ball to Lamar and then turned and gave the ball to Junior going in the opposite direction that there would not be enough defensive players to be able to make a tackle. This is called a counter play in football and in this case, it worked to perfection. So well in fact, that Junior ran untouched for 50 yards and a touchdown on the first offensive play of the game! After just 45 seconds of game time, we had the lead and now, it was up to our defense to do their job and stop the opponent and what happened next was truly amazing!

The Goal Line Stand:

It was our turn to kickoff and I made the decision to kick the ball as far as we could in the hopes that it would “pin” the opponent deep in their own territory and that they would then need to be good enough to drive the entire length of the field in order to tie the game. Well, this backfired on me and when the kick returner from the opposing team received the ball he saw an opening and he ran to a wide open side of the field and seemed to be on his way to tying the score. I just hung my head in disappointment that I had made a bad decision when, out of the corner of my eye I saw Lamar chasing down the ball carrier from behind and catching him at the 1 yard line! Now, anytime a team gets the ball at the defensive unit’s 1 yard there is a pretty good chance that they are going to score and in youth football, it is practically guaranteed! That was not to be the case on this afternoon. On first down, the offense attempted to run the ball directly up the middle and the defense was ready for them, stopping the running back and causing a 1 yard loss. Second and goal from the 2 saw the offense attempt to run a sweep where they tried to get around the outside of the defense and again, the defense did their job and the play resulted in a 5 yard loss. Third and goal at the 7 yard line and again the offense attempted to run a sweep, this time in the opposite direction and they were able to get the ball back to the 1 yard line. Fourth and goal at the 1 yard line! I am not sure exactly where the next play was suppose to go and as I watched from the sideline at what unfolded, I convinced myself that what I was witnessing was the longest play that I had ever seen! First, the quarterback took the ball and tried to go straight ahead and was hit by a defender right away. Then, after bouncing off the first defender the quarterback decided to go backwards and to the right when he ran into what seemed to be 9 defensive players and this caused the quarterback to run backwards and to the left and at that point, I saw that the goal line stand that the defensive players made in an effort to keep the opponent out of the end zone was going to work. When the play ended, the quarterback was tackled on the 15 yard line and we took over on offense and it did not take long for the offense to score again and again, we used the counter play to up our lead. The game was a lopsided win for the team however, I like to give credit to the defense and that incredible goal line stand that they made after just 45 seconds of game time for helping us to secure our first championship. What I learned from those young athletes on that Saturday morning was that determination, trust and execution can all lead to success and plenty of smiles!

The Muddy Backseat

My Mom:

I don’t think that I ever really appreciated everything that my mom did for me while I younger and was being a big pain in the ass (not always), until I became a father. This Sunday is Father’s Day and today, I want to pay homage to the woman who consistently let me know that I was just as good as the person sitting next to me and that I could do anything that I put my mind to, my MOM! I am not sure if my mom ever wanted me to play football however, while I was playing, she did all that she could to support me. Just a few of the things that I remember about my mom supporting me are:

1. When I wanted to get really expensive pair of football cleats, she found a way to buy me the ones that she could afford and that I liked, thanks Mom!

2. When I didn’t feel like walking to practice and stood in the kitchen staring her down while she was cooking something, she put her food project on hold and drove me to practice, thanks Mom!

3. When my arm was bruised from blocking and tackling in practice and I asked for arm pads to help protect my forearms, Mom spent some money on buying the arm pads for me, thanks Mom!

Our Car:

My recollection of our Ford LTD wagon with its forest green coloring and its impressive side paneling is one of pure joy. I recall piling into the back of that car and going to a drive-in theater to watch movies with my family and how excited all of us were to be able to ride “way in the back”. When my father bought that car he was proud to show it off and he was a handy man and did his best to save money by working on it, himself. Of course, he would ask me to help and I just stood there and passed him the tools that he asked for. He was somewhat patient with me until he began working on the vehicle and one of its many “faulty parts”. I remember my Dad sticking out his tongue as he worked and then when something would go awry, I would remember the swell of obscenities that bellowed from his well formed Italian jaw. The swear words that spewed from his mouth usually followed some sort of small injury or cut that resulted in the display and flow of his blue collar, hard working blood. Nevertheless, I always learned something from my Dad as he and I worked on that vehicle, even it was an Italian swear word!

Look at you guys:

There was one game that I participated in during my time as a youth football player after we had that new car, when Mother Nature decided that the rain must fall for hours before and all during my game. Since I played on a field that saw multiple games played on it, on any given day and because our scheduled game was the last game of the evening, you can imagine that the field was one big mud puddle! I saw plenty of action during that game and many opportunities to make sure that every single inch of my body was covered in mud and that I was soaked through to my skivvies! On this particular night, my mom did not sit in the stands and watch my game however, she was there to give me a ride home, in that new car. My mom came prepared to give me a ride home with towels and blankets for me to sit on. When my mom pulled up to pick me up from the locker room, I opened the passenger door and after she looked at me, she said “Oh my gosh, look at all of that mud. Put the towels and blankets down before you get in!” Well, after stating that I would, I asked her if she would give 3 other players a ride home. Little did she know that I had already said to the other 3 players, “Sure, my mom will take you home!” To say that my mom was surprised at the request would be an understatement and she also did not have enough towels and blankets to cover all of the seats in the vehicle to protect the upholstery from the massive amounts of mud that was about to be laid upon it. Nevertheless, Mom said “sure honey” like she did most of the time. Well, I opened the back door and 2 players crawled into the “way in the back seat” and then I climbed into the back seat with my best friend. My mom dropped the other players off and when we arrive back home afterwards, I can vaguely recall that there was not much fuss made over the condition of the interior of that car however, I do remember having to wash it thoroughly the next day.

Thanks Mom!

Kicking It All Off

The Friday before:

As practice ended on that Friday evening in early September of 1989, the players were getting into their parents’ cars and driving away and I was standing there with my 3 assistant coaches. We were talking about the next day and our first game and how nervous we were about coaching in our first contest. As I left the practice field and headed home, I began to think about what I was going to say to the players prior to the game in order to let them know that I was proud of how hard they had worked. I thought about what the mission statement for the organization that I was coaching in said and decided that my pregame talk should be about playing hard and having fun. I was going to stay away from any talk about being victorious because in my mind, playing hard and having fun meant that the players would be winners regardless of the score at the end of the contest.

No sleep:

Prior to crawling into bed that night, I called my assistant coach and talked to him for a bit and let him know that I was feeling pretty nervous about the game and we also chatted a bit about what plays had worked for us during our practices and the few scrimmages that we had. After I hung up the phone, I continued to think about the game and the players and not wanting to make any coaching mistakes, while doing my best to make the game day experience enjoyable for everyone on the team. I turned off the light and climbed into bed and closed my eyes. When I opened my eyes, I was thinking about the game, the players, the opponent and the outcome. I could feel my mind racing and my thoughts piling on top of one another and I knew that I would not be getting much sleep on that night. When I finally did close my eyes and got some sleep, it seemed like I was only asleep for about an hour before I heard my alarm clock buzzing. I was feeling tired and was badly in need of a shower and some very strong coffee and luckily, I had both available to me!

The pregame speech:

I arrived at the field around 7:00 AM for a game that was scheduled for a 8:30 AM kickoff and I walked around looking at the white lines on the field and enjoying the early morning smells that permeated the air. The players began arriving around 7:30 AM which is exactly when I had informed them and their parents that I would like to have them at the field. We made our way to an area of the park where we could warm up and run some plays to make sure that all of the players understood what their job was. When I noticed that my watch showed the time as 8:15 AM, I decided to have the players, parents and coaches gather up all of the equipment and drinks and to follow me over to our sideline. When we reached the sideline and the players were all settled, I called them over to me and asked them to take a knee. I started my talk by saying, “raise your hand if you are on offense.” Then, “raise your hand if you are on defense.” Finally I said, “raise your hand if you are on special teams/kickoff teams.” Once I realized that all of the players knew when they were suppose to be on the field, I moved on to what my expectations were for the game. I wanted them to play hard and have fun. I wanted them to do their own job and trust that their teammates would do the job that they were suppose to do. I let them know that I was proud of how hard they had worked and that no matter what the score of the game ended up being that they all should learn something from the experience of playing the game and walk off the field with their heads held high and a smile on their face. Then, my assistant coach chimed in with a hearty, “Chiefs on three!” to which the players all put their hands together and counted, “1, 2, 3, Chiefs!”

The kickoff:

I sent the captains out to the middle of the field for the coin toss and to help them make a decision about whether or not to defer or receive the opening kickoff. When the coin toss landed in our favor, my quarterback immediately said, “we want the ball.” We were set to receive the opening kickoff and the butterflies in my stomach were almost uncontrollable! I was so nervous that I thought that I may need to spend a few minutes in the men’s room prior to the game. I calmed myself enough to give the kickoff return team some advice which was to make sure that they could see their opponents’s eyes before they tried to block them. In football on a kickoff, if you block someone in the back it is a penalty and any gain that you have made on the kickoff is wiped out and that is the reason for my final reminder of “seeing the eyes”. The teams took the field, the referee blew his whistle and the kicker from the opposing team kicked the ball off from the tee that it was resting on. The ball sailed through the air and I was surprised at how far that 9 year old had just kicked the ball and as the precious pigskin was falling from the back drop of the beautiful blue morning sky, I noticed that it was heading right into the arms of Lamar! Now, Lamar was one of my running backs and he was a gifted athlete who loved the game of football. He was always smiling and probably thought that the coaches were crazy and weird but, he pushed himself and had an amazing family that came to the practices and games and supported him. It was a joy to watch him play the game with passion and to give everything that he had on every play that he participated in. There was no other player on the team that I would have rather had that first kickoff come to besides Lamar. I knew that when he caught the ball that he would run as hard and as fast as he could and would not go down unless he was being tackled by more than one defender, and I was right! Lamar caught the ball and raced up the field past defenders and at one point, it seemed like every other player on the field was standing still. Lamar pranced into the end zone, handed the ball to the official and then walked to the offensive huddle to hear the play that was being called for the extra point. Well, he ran the ball into the end zone on the extra point play also and then he walked over to the sideline and with that big grin on his face showed everyone his pearly whites and I believe that I heard someone from his family yelling “all day Lamar!” Well, all day it was for Lamar because the other team had no chance of stopping Lamar on that day and that is how we kicked it all off in 1989.

Writer’s note: I can honestly say that to this day, I still sleep very little the night before any game that I coach in and I still have that excitement about being on the sideline and cheering for the players to do their best. I have changed my pregame speeches throughout the years! My pregame speeches now begin and end with “this is a game so, play it hard and have fun!” I also still stay in touch with Lamar and let him know that his friendship means a lot to me and that I am proud to have been his coach, even if it was just for a short period of time. I had the privilege and honor of watching Lamar play high school and semi-pro football and he is still one of the most talented athletes that I have ever been around. I want to thank Lamar for giving me permission to write this story about this experience and about my relationship with him. May he continue to be blessed and to pay it forward, “Thank you!”

The Pass and the Apology

Year 3:

During my third season of coaching football, the team was very successful and it was because after winning a championship in their second season, the players did not take for granted their success. The players all came to practice and worked harder than in the previous season and it appeared to me that all of them were dedicated to each other and wanted to repeat as champions. There were a couple of differences during my third season with these young athletes; first, since all of the players were now 10 years old they were required to move from the pee wee league up to the rookie league and second, we would be the team that all of the other teams wanted to beat since, we had just won the championship the year before. The players on the team seemed to thrive during the first weeks of practice and when the regular season opened up, I felt that we were ready for a new challenge!

The Regular Season:

In that third year, our regular season saw the “Chiefs” scheduled to play against a few teams that we had played the previous season and it also introduced us to some new contests against teams that were joining our league for the first time. The new teams were made up of players from outside of the city and most of them were young men who were growing up on a farm. From a size perspective, the players seem to tower over the players on the Chiefs however, from a talent and speed standpoint, the Chiefs carried a significant edge and this was the third year in a row that they were playing football together. The biggest benefit of having the same players year after year is that the focus when practice begins is more on refreshing what has already been learned and refining execution of plays both offensively and defensively instead of teaching basic fundamentals of football. For this reason, season three quickly became a memorable one with the Chiefs easily handling the first two opponents on the schedule. The speed and talent difference between the Chiefs and their opponents was clearly noticeable during those first 2 games and with the first 2 games under our belt, we were off and running towards another playoff berth and a chance at a third straight championship game.

The Pass:

As the playoffs approached, I talked with the players about how we now needed to pay even more attention to the details of our play and also that we needed to prepare better in practice because every team would want to knock us off the mountain. I have heard the saying a number of times said by quite a few during my lifetime and it goes something like this, “it is easier to become champions than it is to stay champions!” I tried my best to keep the players focused on each game and I thought that we were ready for the playoffs and the play on the field proved my thoughts right. The first playoff game pitted the Chiefs against a new team from the outside of the city called the “Bucs”. Now, when we took the field against the Bucs, I realized that the chiefs were at a significant size disadvantage and that in order to win the game, the Chiefs would need to play error free football. The Chiefs did just that! For the first 25 minutes (32 minute games at that level) of the playoff contest, neither team was able to move the ball and in fact, only the Chiefs were able to get into the opposing team’s defensive territory and the game remained deadlocked at 0-0. As time was beginning to wind down in the final period of regulation time, the Chiefs were able to sustain a long drive by running the ball on every play and had the ball at the Bucs 10 yard line with just over 2 minutes to play. What was going through my mind was that if we could score a touchdown here, there would be no way that the Bucs would be able to score on the defense and we would advance one step closer to our third straight championship game. I called a time out and our quarterback came over to the sideline as water was given to the other players. I decided that it was time to go for the end zone and I called for a play which would fake a run to the left and the quarterback would throw the ball back to the right. Now, we had practiced this play all week during practice and even ran it during pregame warm-ups and it worked every time! After the time out, the quarterback barked out the signals and the ball was snapped, the fake was made and the pass was in the air. As I stood on the sideline watching things unfold, I recall having a sinking feeling when I saw the Bucs’ player standing there waiting for the ball to fall out of the sky and no Chiefs’ player anywhere in sight. My thought went to, “please let him drop it” however, it was not meant to be and the landed softly into his hands and he ran. Since he was already running, there was no way that any player on the Chiefs was going to catch him and he leaped into the end zone and began dancing around and was mobbed by his teammates, parents and coaches. “What have I just done?”, I thought.

The Apology:

I walked to the center of the field and shook the opposing coach’s hand and wished him the best of luck going forward and he returned my greeting with a “thank you!” I looked at the players on the Chiefs and it was the first time that I had looked upon them with a feeling of despair and churning in my gut which was telling me that this was my fault. To a player, they walked to the sideline, laid down their helmets and knelt down on one knee. Every player was silent as I walked towards them with my assistant coaches. “I have never seen a group of players play the game so hard and give everything that they had and I am so proud of all of you!”, I said with a tear streaming down my cheek. “All of you did the job that we, as coaches asked you to do and I failed you by not doing the job that each of you trusted me to do. I am so sorry that my poor decision took something away from all of you and that this season has come to a disappointing end for all of us here today!” I learned a lot about the power of community and family on that day because, each and every player and parent that was at that game huddled together and in some way gave thanks that we all made it through the season healthy and that we were together, where each of us was suppose to be and that made the loss sting just a little less than it would have had I not been there with those young athletes and their family.

writer’s note: that day was the last day that I would spend with all of those players from Chiefs and while it was heartbreaking, I am truly grateful for all of the times that we spent together on and off the field of play. I have stayed in touch with some of the players and have even had the opportunity to coach some of those players’ kids and I think that all of them today still calls me “coach”.

The “Naked Bootleg!” “You Betcha!”

Assistant coaches:

Nearly every football team has at least one assistant coach and the assistant can be responsible for a number of tasks which are specific to helping the head coach and players. It can be something small like getting a band-aid for a player who has a cut to a larger role such as coordinating the offensive or defensive unit of the team. Whatever the assistant coaches jobs are, they are there to not only help the head coach but also, to learn about the players, families and game and from time to time take over for a coach who gets removed from a game suddenly. I have had the privilege of having many assistant coaches during my coaching career and in this post, I am going to tell a story about my first assistant coach, Mark and about his passion for a specific play called, the “naked bootleg”.

The meeting:

I met Mark during the very first practice that I ran as a coach back in August of 1989. I drafted Mark’s son with my first ever draft pick. Mark’s son ended up being my quarterback and he was a gifted athlete. He had speed, quickness, agility, aggressiveness and an accurate lightning bolt of a right arm. Since I ran the first practice by myself and didn’t really have an assistant coach, I was able to talk Mark into joining my coaching staff or rather, he may have begged me to be on the sidelines to watch his son play. At any rate, Mark became my assistant and he had a catch phrase, “you betcha!”. When the players made a great play, Mark would pat them on the helmet when they came over to the sidelines and say, “you betcha!”. I thoroughly enjoyed being on the sidelines with Mark because he was optimistic about the outcome of any game that we were playing in and he was an enthusiastic parent with a passion for the game of football and an even greater passion for his son.

The play explained:

The “naked bootleg” is when every player on the offensive team goes in one direction and the quarterback takes the ball and goes in the opposite direction with no blockers, just him and whatever defensive player doesn’t get fooled by the movement of the other players on the offense. In youth football, this works about 95% of the time in my experience. When I was coaching with Mark, it worked every time. In order to have the play work properly, it is important that the offensive team run a “set up” play which involves every player on the offense going in one direction and the ball carrier taking the ball from the quarterback and going in the same direction. Once the quarterback gives the ball to the running back, the quarterback sprints in the opposite direction faking like he still has the ball. With the quarterback’s action, the defensive players hesitate and watch him for a second which allows the running back to have that extra time to get beyond the defensive players.

Calling it at the right moment:

During the playoff run in that first year, we had set up the play beautifully by running our “set up” play several times during the first 3 quarters of the game. Mark watched the players on the opposing team’s defense for 3 quarters. I walked over to him in the fourth quarter with the team needing to score a touchdown and said what do you think we should run here and he did not hesitate, “the naked bootleg” came out of his mouth. I asked him if he really thought the players on the defense would go for it and he shook his head, yes. I called Mark’s son over and told him to run the “naked bootleg”. When the teams lined up and just before the ball was snapped, I heard Mark say “you betcha” and as I looked on the field, I saw why. The players on defense were all in the middle of the field or to the wide side of the field and we had the play called for the short side of the field. The ball was snapped, all offensive players moved to the wide side of the field, the defensive players followed them, the quarterback faked the ball to the running back and sprinted around to the short side of the field and there was no one there. Mark watched as his son walked into the end zone and he screamed out, “naked bootleg! you betcha!”