Sunday, August 30, 2009


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?


Joshua said...

Good luck. I admire your willingness to pass along your good experience to others. I am sure you will have a positive impact on those kids. Hopefully without yelling.

Anonymous said...

So you will be coaching at a school that's never had a football team, has almost no equipment & doesn't even have a field. Wow! What a challenge.


Frazier said...

I havent been able to check on your blog for awhile and THIS is what you've been up to? Drawing up divorce papers? I'm kidding but if it were me trying to sneak in a coaching gig (short of the guaranteed $3 million plus that Urban Meyer types haul in) I would be sleeping on the couch every night- with nothing but my playbook to comfort me.
I am really glad that you are doing this though- for the kids sake. You mentioned the positive affect your high school coach had on you but my experience was different. I learned how to hate someone deeply enough that I still have bad dreams about him at age 34. He used to say, "Frazier- you got potential. But do you know what potential means? It means you aint worth a Sh** yet!" His approach wasnt that different than alot of prep coaches- they are supposed to tear you down physically and mentally- he just forgot the building back up part which is where growth happens. But I never blamed the game- it is a thing of both beauty and violence that managed to teach me many life lessons. Something about going hard enough at something to puke and then willingly doing it again the next day all over again that makes future troubles less insurmountable. So I am excited for you and a little jealous- I know you'll do a great job. The best coaches tend to fit somewhere between the "put em' in a bodybag Johnny" type and the biology or history teacher who is given a whistle and a small stipend to mold young bodies and minds- even though his football experience is comprised of having watched it on TV from time to time.
So anyway good luck brother- and win or lose these kids will take away something valuable. The value of teamwork, sacrifice, and fun. Serious fun!

Ryann said...

Go, Dalyn! No doubt they'll make a movie out of your story in several years. Good luck, and congratulations on the job.

Corbie said...

Congrats on your new 'job'...what a privilege (truly).

brohammas said...

that was perfect.