What My Coach Taught Me
I made a recent trip back to my hometown, and it brought back some memories. My school building has since been demolished, and the only remnants are the practice field where I learned a lot about the Straight T Offense and myself. It has been exactly 28 years since I
stepped into high school for the first time. This came across my mind the other day, and I thought about my coach. How I had a different opinion of him at the time, and what I understand now as a grown man. He was our Psychology and History Teacher, as well as a Minister. I know realize that many of the drills and lessons he put us through had more to do with overcoming what was outside of the football field. He knew how to combat the pitfalls of the area we lived in. He knew that to get us out, it was as situational as a game deciding call.
To allow the audience to understand my Coach better, I think it is fair to create the setting.
My school was not all bad, but media and perception shaded itself that way. We had some outstanding teachers that really cared for our students. We had a huge marching band with nearly 200 members, and some awesome pep rally’s.But days could certainly lend itself to some challenging situations. Ten minutes into my first day of high school, I was sitting in homeroom. I never will forget it was a science classroom with the typical double tables. I looked immediately across the walking isle and saw a student pull out a small frame nickel plated semi-automatic pistol, to clean and inspect it. When the bell rang, it slipped back into his pants, and my high school career was off and running.
Normalcy to us were metal detectors at every door. Pep Rally’s, sporting events, prom, etc. all had these present. We had every gang in the high school, and several conflicts over the years. One of my teammates in basketball was shot and killed for crossing the street. That happened in 1993 and his killer has never been found (RIP L.C.). We were the school that the media portrayed just as I described to you, and seldom was there ever positive feedback. There was never talk of the fine teachers who were really there to help kids. To give them a glimpse of hope, and help them cultivate a path out of the shattered pieces of life that so many tried to piece together everyday. Or the veteran coaches who worked on a minimal budget, who had once coached major programs and the best players. I honestly did not realize the sacrifices my coaches made until now, but really it was not a sacrifice to them, it was doing their job. Molding the youth to become great citizens. Not for just the 912/478, but for us to go out into this nation and take a little bit of Anthony Road with us. Reflecting back I came to the conclusion of my high school career and what my coach taught me.
Lesson #1. I will play QB (You will not always get your way, and what benefits the team is more important).
I was destined to be a quarterback (at least in my mind). I had a strong-arm, good speed, and a big frame (or so I thought). Our offense was the Straight T, and we ran some option from it, and only threw a couple of passes. So strong-arm was not needed and speed and big frame could be used elsewhere. Coach moved me to tight end, not the most glorious position in the T offense, might as well been called light tackle. I balked at this move and pouted, but he would not budge. I really thought I was “better” than the tight end position, and selfishly in my mind thought he was not doing what was best for the team. To sell me even more on the position on the first day he sent me with the offensive lineman. The drill that day…. Bull in the Ring. Our offensive line on JV averaged 6′-4″ 260 lbs, and here I was 6′-2″ and a cool 175. Guess who got nominated every time someone got int the middle, you guessed it….. me. I was so mad at the end of practice I was ready to quit. I could easily go and start shooting for basketball or on throwing for baseball.
The next day at practice, I went with the lineman again, only this time it was chute work. Because our school was not well-funded we had one of those antique, boxed steel chutes. I was a 4 man individual kind, that you barely had room for each man to get in the given space. I am pretty sure that is was something left over from WW2, and the padding had long weathered off. Not to mention it was made for a 4 point stance “get low” workout. To put it mildly the high man got pinned against the box steel, so you better get low. The whistle did not blow until you “rooted” your opponent out. I can’t tell you how many times that me and that steel became acquainted that day, but we were definitely on a first name basis.
He also thought my size and speed would be best used at outside linebacker. Much to my surprise pass rush drill was not in his plan. Since most teams we faced were some version of a T offense, his favorite drill was not pass rushing, but how to take on a kick out block. Did we forget that 1. T offenses are gap scheme (pulling lineman), and 2. We were not a “spill and kill” defense. I had to set the edge. So each rep I was having to meet and greet lineman with a head full of steam to strategically take them back from whence they came. I had to out leverage and drive them back into the hole. It was now basically a controlled isolated “bull in the ring drill.” Now to illustrate the picture further, it wasn’t like this for just me, it was equal for every position on the field. We had 40 yard one on one open field tackling, and angle tackling from behind the screen, Oklahoma, and many more. It was a treat to hit the 5 man sled, at least it was padded, and did not move.
After my first week, I was ready to walk. Who was this guy, and why was he doing this to me? Selfishly in my mind, I felt like I was being wasted. To the point at the dinner table I decided to lashed out. My brother (10 years my senior), formed tackled me onto the concrete slab floor, and gave me a speech on how selfish I was being and how he gave his all for 4 years to play special teams and make a block to win the city title. I quickly decided that is was best for me to continue on and see how it worked out.
After 28 years, I can see what my coach was teaching me, and the rest of the team. In our environment it was easy to look at other places who had it better, and develop a “whoa is me” mind-set. The mindset of: Whats the use? It always been this way…What is he doing for me… I am never getting out of here…..or even worse I quit. That very mindset had been the poison that had destroyed many of our best players, it is the very mindset that deters adults. He never questioned my athletic ability, but he tested my mental ability to handle situations I did not want, nor enjoyed. He wanted to see if we would quit when times were not “our way.” He also wanted us to see that football practice could help us withstand the boarded up houses, and housing projects that surrounded our high school. It wasn’t a punishment, that my selfish mind led me to side with, but it was training and his ability to see what I needed to be as complete of a student athlete as I could be. It was a way to attack life.
Lesson #2 Catching the Pop Pass (Decisions can be tough, but not making one will be tougher.)
The one pass that specifically designed to be thrown to the tight end. We did not have any routes on air, pat n go drills in our practices. So we had a drill where you caught the pop pass, and got hit to simulate the importance of catching and securing a pass through contact. We were not issued rib guards, back plates and other protective equipment. Our jerseys even did not tuck into our pants. So we learned how to take contact while catching a pass, and secure it to the tackle. So we would catch about 5 of these a day, and that was basically all of the throwing we would need. We would work different releases from a 3 point stance, and catch a ball thrown at you from point-blank distance, with a defender at safety depth coming in for the collision. It was not the beauty of Dwight Clark in the end zone, that is pictured when you think of the tight end catching a pass, it might as well been called TE dive. It was a great constraint play to a 3rd and short or 4th and 1 situation, and also havoc on the catch collision you might receive. This play call in a game was exciting and also tense at the same time. Knowing we were gonna pass it, and it was coming to me, and the fact I knew there was a high probability I was going to get drilled.
To be a man you have to be capable of making a decision. That decision may be the right one, but pain also comes with it. He did not allow us to blame others for not getting the job done. That pass was directed at a person for a specific purpose, it was either completion or a failure. He also taught me that sacrifice was a big part of making a decision. If your duty was called, you should do it. There will be temporary discomfort within paving the path to success. The pass was a treat for my position, but that came with a price. The temporary discomfort that comes with striving to be successful.
Lesson #3 The Crack Back Block (Suffer and Enjoy)
Oh the joys of the Nasty split. When we wanted to get “fancy” we would get in a formation that allowed me to split out. I even got to get in a 2 point stance, oh the trickery. This was my treat. He would call sweep, and I would get to crack the linebacker. This was something I actually liked and enjoyed. I get to stand up like an athlete, and block someone is space and my size, with one rule get your head across. I would argue now we should have just ran this play over and over, but that is just my observation. Finally something as a player I liked, and good at, and I felt comfortable with it.
As I mentioned before we were the afterthoughts. I can remember we were playing “the school” in our town. In the first series coach called the sweep, with the TE in a split. The linebacker read full flow, and I drilled him, the running back came around the end and well strike up the band. We beat them 42-6 that day, and I can still remember watching the runner escorted down the sideline with 2 blockers, for the first touchdown. That block has basically been outlawed from the game, but the lesson taught will never be erased.
That block taught me that you can get the same thing accomplished, but sometimes you have to change your approach. It also taught me that if you suffer through things you don’t like, you will increase your chances in getting what you want. You will find your niche and enjoy it. Allow yourself to be used in a team setting to achieve a goal greater than a selfish decision, that can leave you bitter and miss opportunity. If I would have continued to pout, I would not have been a part of that touchdown, only a spectator, and even worse my story may have turned out different.
Lesson #4 The Classroom (Excuses are not tolerated)
After the season, I was struggling in school. It was the mid-way point through first semester, and my grades for 6 classes were all failing but one. My parents were strict on my grades, and I was under restriction. Coach knew both of my parents worked hard, and wanted the best for me. He caught wind of my mediocrity and made me the object of one of his Civics lesson. To better allow you to understand this situation, remember there is an amusement park just west of Atlanta named 6 flags, and factor in I took 6 classes. He started class as usual, and players had to sit in the front. He started in on a lesson and then looked at me. For the next 20 minutes I would have rather crawled under a desk and hid. He never raised his voice or even pointed his finger. He simply concluded the lesson with “if I had not passed at least one class I would have my own 6 flags.” He opened a desk behind me and invited my parents to come and sit with me each day in class. I tried to give him every excuse I could, those were not tolerated. A man who had overcome so much in his life, would not allow someone with the same opportunity to use excuses as a crutch. He was also my basketball coach, so you can only imagine what practice was like for me during these times. I learned very quickly it was easier to do your task when it was expected than try to work twice as hard to catch up. I think I ran more that semester at practice than most people do in their lifetime.
From the lessons that he had taught me earlier on the field, this was much deeper. He knew we could not be successful without an education. He told us to reach after the things people could not take from us. He said that people could take your job, your house, your car, and many material things, but no one could take your education, and the diplomas that you earned. Those were what allowed you to keep ahead when the times found you desperate. Education was free, and not something to be thrown away with excuses.
These lessons is likely why I left the private sector to finish my education and become a teacher/coach. The impact these lessons have helped define and shape my life. My teachers and coaches sacrifice to teach us no matter where we came from or what we could offer left a lasting impression on us. It would be a lot easier to concentrate on how I thought I needed to be used, instead of allowing myself to be a part of something greater than my selfish pursuits. It was servant leadership before it was a “buzz” word in the leadership realm. It was simply doing his job of molding young men and teaching us to humble ourselves for the greater good of the team.