For The Love of the Game

It was a warm summer afternoon and as we pulled into the parking lot, I could tell that Josh was excited. As soon as I turned off the engine, he bounded out of the car and headed for the ball field. Upon finding his team, Josh joined right in and started tossing the football around with his teammates.

Two and a half years earlier, while still living in Massachusetts, Josh handed me a football one day and said we were going to play until he could catch the ball every time I threw it to him. It turned out that football had become the game his friends were playing at recess and my son, who had never shown any interest in the game prior to handing me that football, spent eight hours that weekend working on catching the ball and running routes. Within a week, he had gone from the kid who was always picked last to the kid who got picked first almost every day.

Josh started playing football every chance he could. When we moved to North Carolina, our neighbor and his sons would end up playing a pick-up game with us every weekend. The kids in the neighborhood played fall, winter and spring, so when signups started for the Carolina Copperheads flag football league, Josh was the first one in line to sign up.

As his first practice progressed, I paid attention to Josh and silently pulled him off to the side here and there to give him pointers that would help him on the field. He listened intently and made adjustments during the drills. By the end of his first practice, I was proud of him. He had come a long way in two years and I knew that by the end of the season, he would only get better.

The next morning, I opened my computer to find an email from the Head Coach. He noticed that I was giving pointers to Josh and wanted to know if I would help out as an Assistant Coach. So, after having a long conversation with Josh, I sent the Head Coach an email and told him that I would help out wherever he needed me. And before the next practice, I had a playbook and the league rules to thumb through.

I have always believed that attitude is a reflection of leadership. The Head Coach lived by this philosophy as well and led by example on the field. He showed the kids what he expected from everyone on the team. He expected their best effort in practice as well as in games. He believed in fairness. Everyone plays a line position during the season and everyone plays a skill position. The goal was to learn, play hard and have fun.

In the first few weeks, our goal was to teach the basics and get a few plays developed. We had a variety of talent levels on the team; there were kids who had been playing for years and others who were playing for the first time ever. By developing a basic foundation to build upon, the rest of the season would allow for more complexity. We worked on basic blocking drills, running plays, defensive line drills, coverage, tackling/flag pulling drills, pass plays but most importantly, teamwork and sportsmanship.

I was impressed at how well this team gelled together. I was working with a couple of the younger kids on their defensive line skills midseason and as we took a water break, I was awestruck when one of the older kids walked up to a player I had been working with and gave him a few pointers. He then gave the younger player a confidence building pat on the back along with a few words of encouragement.

But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I finally realized how much this team had grown. Our Head Coach was out of town on business and needed someone to run practice for him. Out of seven coaches, only three of us were available that night. I agreed to run practice and spent the night before trying to master the play calling. Having spent almost the entire season working with the kids on the defensive side of the ball, I hadn’t bothered to learn our offensive terminology. So when I reviewed the list of plays the Head Coach wanted to run in preparation for our game, I gave myself a crash course in the language.

As we formed our first huddle of the night, I realized that my crash course had not worked as well as I had hoped. As I fumbled through the terminology, our quarterback took command of the huddle, called the play, explained to each of the kids who needed to remember their job what they needed to do and had the kids ready to snap the ball in under thirty seconds. And each time we huddled up after that, I showed him the script and he led his team.

As our second and third offenses huddled up that night, our other quarterbacks took the same control of their huddles. Here were eight, nine and ten year old kids stepping up to the plate and showing me what they had learned from our Head Coach; that character is created by how one faces adversity.  It was a testament to the values that had been instilled in this young team at the first practice and had been consistently reinforced by the entire coaching staff throughout the whole season.

When the regular season ended, our team had a 5-2 record. We lost a tough first round playoff game.  But our record isn’t the real story. The real story is about the type young men that played on our team this year. I am so proud of Josh and the kids on his football team. They played like Champions all season. They played with heart and determination until the final second ticked off the clock of every game. And most importantly, they played with class, sportsmanship, character and quite simply, for the love of the game.


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