I'm sitting here on a United flight from Connecticut to Chicago, watching a preview of the upcoming TV series "Friday Night Lights". This is a high school football drama loosely based on the movie that came out a year or two ago. It looks to be a good show, and for those of you not in the USA it should help give an understanding of the importance of that sport to many Americans. Of course, as an American, when I say "football" I mean American football and not soccer.
I have the extreme fortune to be coaching youth football this year in Sherwood. I'm the assistant coach for Matthew's team comprised of 3rd and 4th graders. Matthew is in his second year playing, and Jacob is in his fourth year. It is a dominant presence in our lives from August through the end of October, with practices 3-4 nights per week and games on Saturdays. The Sherwood youth program is one of the strongest in the state, and I feel that our community as a whole has a true program in the sense that the entire community is behind it, we have significant involvement from the high school coaching staff, and that safety and sportsmanship are key components to everything that we do.
I have a lot more experience coaching baseball than football, and I was more than nervous going into this season. I'm the defensive coordinator but have done much of the offensive line coaching as well. This is even more of a challenge for me in that as a youth player I was a running back and quarterback and didn't play much defense at all. Of course I've been forced to educate myself and lean on others. The one I've leaned on the most is my own son Jacob, who is in his fourth year as an offensive and defensive lineman in the Sherwood program and can usually answer any question I pose.
For those of you that care, Sherwood runs a Wing-T offense (popularized by the University of Delaware) and I've elected to run a split-6 defense (four down lineman and four linebackers, with the two outside linebackers playing a role that is like a blended defensive end and cornerback). When I say "Sherwood runs a Wing-T offense", I mean the entire program runs the same offense from 3rd grade through high school. This offense relies heavily on speed, mis-direction, and play progressions that keep the defense guessing where the ball is going. We don't overpower defenses off the line (our kids are usually smaller) but we've had great success with traps and pulling guards to get players where they need to be to break our backs free.
As a 3rd/4th grade team, we are generally expected to run-run-run the ball with little or no passing game. Matthew is playing fullback and his good friend James is quarterback; they played football together last year and were also on the same baseball team last spring when I coached. James is a talented quarterback with a great arm, and Matthew is a solid (and TALL) receiver so we are mixing in a healthy dose of passing plays.
I tell you, there is nothing like watching 11 kids that you've worked with for 6 weeks execute plays together like a fine-tuned machine. Baseball is a great sport, but teamwork is on the fringes as it requires mostly individual effort (pitching, hitting, fielding). Matthew's team had an outstanding game last Saturday, winning 26-14 after being down 14-0. Matthew had a great day. scoring all four touchdowns, rushing for about 180 yards, and receiving for about 40 yards. He also had 9 tackles. Impressive.
But you know what impressed me most? After every play when he tackled an opponent, he was standing there next to the player reaching out a hand to help him up. It is hard to teach sportsmanship like that, but it is moments like those that help remind me of what being a parent is all about.
Jacob is enjoying similar success but in a much more reserved way. There are weight limits in youth football, and while Jacob is very fit and lean, he has always been a big kid and at 5'4" 125 lbs (he's 11, turning 12 in October) he cannot carry the ball. He has turned into an absolute terror as a defensive lineman. I don't get to see the stats for his team, but I saw at least 4 tackles for losses in his game on Saturday. This is pretty unusual for an inside lineman - they are supposed to plug holes and set up the ends and linebackers to make the big tackles. It must be hard for him deep inside to observe and hear about Matthew's glory carrying the ball, but Jacob remains incredibly supportive of his little brother and clearly recognizes the importance of his own accomplishments.
As a coach, the best stories are those kids that don't have the talent of the stars but find significant ways to contribute to the team. These are kids that work hard, listen, and adjust as necessary to become key contributors. I've got several boys on the team that have impressed all of us and are turning into key role players. If you think that kids these days are dead-beats that sit at home and play XBox all afternoon you should check out the 350+ youth players in Sherwood that show up for 2 hours three days a week for practice. That's a big part of what football (or any team sport) is about: showing up and working hard to achieve a difficult goal when there are so many paths with less resistance that a child can take.