A NFL Hall of Fame coach named Bill Parcells invented a famous phrase used quite often in team sports.
When asked one season about the state of his team, Parcells said, ‘you are what your record says you are.’
This statement is true of professional and college programs (and to many respects, high school). I choose not to believe it so of youth football. If so, our 2017 Jr. Scouts 7th and 8th grade lightweight football season would be deemed a failure. We were 2-6 after all.
But the season was anything but a failure.
Let’s be clear about what this essay is not. It’s not exposition and platitudes about the unencumbered joys and graces notes of coaching 12 and 13 years old boys in football. That would be dishonest.
Here’s what this essay is: musings on the ups, downs, zigs, zags, twists, turns, baffles, befuddles, stupefying, mystifying…
All of it. Coaching youth sports, you feel all of these emotions. Often on the same day.
And as a tribute to one of our players, 7th grader Harry Capstick…all of it and a bag of Goldfish crackers.
“If I swallowed these would I die?” Harry said, while inhaling a handful of Goldfish crackers after practice one night.
“They aren’t real goldfish,” I said.
“What if they were?” Harry said.
“Then you might have a problem,” I said.
I’m not a parent. I have nine nieces and nephews between the ages of 1 and 24. I try and take an active role in all of their lives. With some–like my 14-year-old nephew who is a terrific soccer player, or my 10-year-old niece who lives down the road from me–it’s easier than others (four of my nieces and nephews live in another country. Thank God for FaceTime). What I hope they know is that I am an adult figure in their lives they can trust and will not ‘parent’ them (they already have a mom and dad).
I try and take the same approach with coaching. Be another male figure the boys can talk to about whatever (although ‘whatever’ can be dicey at this age, as I learned this year. Ha). Most importantly, I want to be someone they know is on their side and is investing time in their success.
We had an awesome blend of coaches this year. Charlie DeYoung is our head coach, a young guy who knows football and brings an energetic, spirited yet firm vibe the boys respond to. Jim Oberheide is a veteran youth coach who understands the game at a macro and micro level and is always thinking through situations and communicates in a calm, steady manner. And Frank Pinn, a Mount Carmel and Notre Dame grad who played for Lou Holtz. Another football guy who brought a tough, earnest and honest style the boys respected. And for the limited time he could coach, Andy Clifford, former LFHS and Drake University quarterback, was a huge asset. All terrific guys and we shared a strong camaraderie.
Both Jim and Frank had sons on the team this year…and I know how cool that must have been for them to spend that time with their sons. I learned a lot watching them and how they interacted with Frankie (Jim’s son) and John (Frank’s son). Bottom line…no favoritism. When necessary, they were as hard on them as any of the other players.
Full disclosure: one of the reasons I wanted to coach this season was to either affirm or reverse doubts I had about the safety of the sport at this age level. I am a reporter in my day job and I have interviewed mothers of sons who are adamantly against the sport as it is currently constructed for boys under the age of 14. I respect those concerns, some of which are backed by solid scientific data (and personal experience).
Anytime we are dealing with minors, a contact sport and the human brain, all stakeholders–organizers, coaches, parents–have a responsibility to encourage continual studies as it pertains to safety. And any findings resulting from research should be parsed through and analyzed.
How can we make the game more safe for our players? Seeking answers to this question is in my opinion the single most important directive for the sport in the near future.
I have to say, this season did not completely reverse my doubts. But the experience was more an affirmation on the merits of the game than its faults.
Here’s what makes football both exhilarating and confounding: it’s 11 on 11. Not 5 on 5, 8 on 8, or 1 on 1.
11 on 11.
Cue up Bart Simpson sound effect.
The main source of our frustrations this season was grounded in this reality: we could not get 11 boys to do their job on each play with a high level of consistency.
Hey, we all get it. It’s hard. Our team does not own the market on such behavior. Have you watched the NFL this season? And that game is played by grown men who are paid handsomely for their services. Yikes.
We have limited practice time and a low number of participants. We did the best we could considering the circumstances.
And most often, those circumstances were marvelous.
When I read a story by John Grisham, E.B. White, or even Gillian Flynn, something stirs inside.
Behavioral psychologists call this “unknown knowns.” They are things we as individuals know deep down in our souls but can’t always articulate. We just know it.
A year, five years, 10 years from now, when the memories of this season have faded, I’ll hold onto these “unknown knowns”:
Jack Carrabine: relentless
Jake Kroner: durable
John Pinn: allegiance
Dylan Burns: determination
Andrew Lyon: unbending
Jackson Sommers: persistence
Quinn Garrigan: sturdy
Ben Ephraim: unifying
A.J. Ellis: unflinching
Robert Pasinato: tenacious
Frankie Oberheide: unshakable
Drew Washburn: clever
Rocco Caputo: responsible
Colin Burton: dependable
Harry Capstick: loyal
Jake Clements: rugged
Alexander Domittner: joyful
Mikey Gray: intelligent
Sam Larson: intuitive
Stephen Sinclair: devoted
My hope–the same sentiment is shared by the other coaches–is that all of the boys continue to play the sport. That is ultimately the job of a youth coach…prepare them for the next phase. Their passion for playing the game with each other was evident all season.
It was our pleasure to coach them. We hope to do it again next year.
“Do you have a wife?” Harry asked me one day before practice.
“Nope. Came close once,” I said.
“Do you have kids?” Harry said.
“Nope. Just a bunch of nieces and nephews,” I said.
“I’m going to have a wife,” Harry said.
“Great,” I said. “What will she be like?”
“I don’t know coach,” Harry said. “Can I play running back?”
Jon (Coach Kerr)