Being a football coach can be all consuming. There are the rigors of game day, the long practice hours planned down to the minute, the hours of film study in preparation of an opponent, the tedious task of devising a game plan and developing a play calling sheet, the day-to-day drama of dealing with teenagers and sometimes their parents. Magnifying all of these tasks is the sheer pressure to win. This is a pressure football coaches, driven by their highly competitive nature, let weigh heavily on their shoulders: win, win, win… it’s the only thing that matters.
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
– Vince Lombardi
I am in my seventeenth year of coaching, cutting my teeth at the ripe age of twenty-one while still in college. In my career, I have had my fair share of ups and downs, winning season and losing seasons; each team has its own identity. Regardless of the year, there are certain constants: my drive to succeed and the countless hours I devote to my craft—just ask my wife. It is drive, however, that sometimes blind me from seeing what is really important and why coaching truly matters. It is not just about winning games, it is also about the powerful lessons football can teach teenage boys who are often struggling to become upstanding young men.
This year’s squad has its share of characters, each unique in their own way: serious, hyper, mellow, driven, comedian, space cadet and melding together, they form a goofy group. The JV and Varsity teams also have some young men who deal with much more than the daily pressures of the average teenager. We have a handful of players with a variety of additional mental or physical challenges.
From autism to ADHD to cerebral palsy, these young men often find it difficult to “fit in” at school, in the community or in life. Making friends, concentrating in class or even simply tying their shoes, are challenges that at times can become overwhelming. They have IEP’s, counselors and a slew of support groups at school and in life. But on the football field, it’s just them and their teammates.
While they may struggle to learn the playbook or finish last in sprints, their effort and dedication is remarkable. This lesson is not lost on their teammates. I have witnessed teammates standing up for them, “Don’t talk about my boy like that!” I have stood in awe as teammates, dog-tired, desperate for water, forget their woes, and cheer on a teammate with cerebral palsy as he finishes his share of a relay. His team came in last, but no one seemed to care. We honored him at the end of a grueling four-day camp with a standing ovation that brought tears to my eyes, and a smile that stretched from ear to ear on his face.
It is in these moments, when I actually stop to catch my breath, that I’m reminded what coaching football is really all about. Winning games matters: it is what we strive to do. However, it is in those moments that when a “disabled” teenage boy gets to be just one of the guys, an important member of a team, that we truly win. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”