Coach Birch was a towering man. He loomed over us, all powerful and all knowing. His word was final.
As a junior I was the smallest offensive lineman to take the field on any varsity team in our division, 175 lbs. The second week of practice I looked up at the depth chart taped to the wall of the locker room and saw my name, starting at weak side tackle. I was happy. I looked closer and saw my name was also listed as second string at every other position on the line. This made me nervous. It was a hard year.
That was Coach Birch’s first losing season, the school’s first in two decades. I and a few other underclassmen took the blame and we deserved it. Every week a senior, or some super sophomore, would try to take my spot. They never did, I was better. I was better than them, but rarely better than the other team. Long live competition!
Mid season, during practice, Birch exploded.
“D@#$! Brohammas! Pull your head out of your @$$ and play football. I swear you would do a better job for this team if you went and stood in the corner somewhere.”
Half the team stood still in fearful shock, while the other half snickered. I silently seethed as the only acceptable response would be improved play. It wouldn’t happen that day. That was one of those many days where body and mind could not agree. Practice ended and we all just went home.
Birch called that night. I had never heard him apologize to anyone before, in my mind he never needed too. He told me his words were out of line and he regretted them. He explained he had a bad temper, which we all knew, but he continued.
“I will continue to yell at you till you begin to play better. We need you to play better. I wish I knew a better way but I don’t. The problem is I know you are better than you are playing. You can do a lot better. Son, just know that I only yell because I still believe in you. If I ever stop yelling at you, it’s time to worry because that means I have given up on you.”
For all I know Coach had read this line in a Vince Lombardi quote book, but it worked. I gained more confidence from that phone call than anything before it. I was too young and hopeful to be properly skeptical. Sinicism takes years to develop. I believed every word of it.
That was roughly sixteen years ago. I have done many things, been many places, and known great people, but few had the impact he did. I still think about that call. I still think about those years. The older I get the less I speak of them, but their memory hasn’t dimmed. For good or bad, those years and that man are one of the cornerstones of who I am, part of the foundation I am built on.
Mariana Bracetti Academy, in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, was founded in 1999 and now has an enrollment of 1155 students (grades 6-12). They have never had a football team. We have equipment for thirty kids, but no blocking sled, it wasn’t in the budget. We will play in the public school league next year, but this season we are on our own. We have three games scheduled; maybe we can pick up another. Odds are we lose them all. I hate to lose. I hate it with a deep burning hate. We don’t even have a field. We will take the subway to a public field some blocks away for practice and all games will be “away”.
I enjoy evenings with my family. At the moment, my wife enjoys my company. Still, I often find myself thinking of Birch. I am better for having known him. I have explained my motivations to my wife but my words lamely fall flat. She says she understands, I’m sure she wants too. What I do know for sure is that starting next week, I will be smelling grass, wearing a whistle.
Where can I find a pair of those polyester shorts?