Monday, October 26, 2009

Worst Saturday of my life

As the bus pulled of the turnpike and we started on the back country roads, the kids pulled out their earphones and started looking out the windows.

“Yo, it’s just like the movies! Where are we?”
“Where’s all the people?”
“It’s just too perfect out here, it makes me nervous.”
“Yo, I just saw a person! We been driving like all day and that’s the first person I saw.”
“Wait, where’s all the black people?”
“Yo, maybe this is like some Hitler type stuff and we only think we are going to play football.”
“They don’t like black people out here yo, we better look out for the reffs, ya know?”

I didn’t say anything. I just sat, listened, and watched the well tended corn fields and silos roll past.

The Milton Hershey School is a private boarding school founded by the Chocolate magnate with a charter to help troubled youth. The campus would make any college proud. There is a large, surprisingly modern main hall, a big athletic center, two huge outdoor swimming pools, one complete with a twisting water slide. I’m sure the sight of an actual stadium with a real locker room stunned many of the kids into silence, but I have no idea as I was distracted by all the “oohs” and “ahhs”. We filed out onto the pro grade synthetic turf, ran through some drills, and looked ready to play.

We had two weeks to get ready for this game. The first day of the two week build up was a Monday morning session that roused about 15 young men at the unheavenly hour of… 10 a.m. That Wednesday was study hall. Thursday it rained and ten kids showed up at the field. Friday Sarge called me to say only four kids checked out their pads today so don’t worry about heading for the field as no one would be there.
Monday was great weather, great turnout, and great practice. Tuesday was better weather and worse everything else. {Name withheld} was A.W.O.L. so later that night I went to his house. After using all my detective skills I found his home, not the address listed on school records, and he let me in. He was just feeding his little brother a dinner of chips and cool-aid. Turns out Grandma was rushed to the hospital, Mom hadn’t been heard from (which is normal), and {name withheld} had to watch little brother. We talked a bit about life and telephones and made sure little brother was spending the rest of the week at Dad’s.
Thursday was well attended but poorly executed.
Friday’s run through had key guys missing for good reasons (school), but many present were mentally missing. Jogged routes, inattentiveness, and plugged ears had me ready to strangle someone. We did our best to press through and I did my best to keep my words positive for the day before a game.

They ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
We fumbled the ensuing kickoff giving them the ball on the 20. They scored on the first play from scrimmage. We punted after three plays. They ran their first play in for a touchdown.
As the touchdowns began to pour down, so did the rain. The torrent of both water and points on top of us seemed to imply that heaven and the other team were allied. Game time is chaotic enough under normal circumstances but we coaches began to flounder a bit. I did my best to refrain from negativity, which comes so easily when it is deserved, but not everyone made the same attempt. Some coaches fumed, while a couple simply disappeared. I mostly watched, trying to figure out exactly what was happening.

Just as I didn’t know the school would let non-players, including girls, on the bus, I didn’t know they would let parents onto the sidelines. During the debacle a short, round man with a long goatee was yelling, “It’s the fundamentals coach! Teach them to tackle coach! Your fundamentals suck coach!” He went on a loud continuation of that theme. By halftime I had had enough. I warned the other coaches I was going to try to talk to someone I would rather punch, and approached the man. Trying to keep cool, I asked the man to not address the players unless he had encouragement. He argued. I explained that he was not there on Monday through Friday and because of that had no idea what the kids are capable of. He got loud. He said he would start showing up every day because as a player and competitor he knew our fundamentals sucked. Now I got loud. I told him he was right, our fundamentals suck, but they are surely not going to learn fundamentals today, so his words were not helping anyone. He agreed, and shut up for the rest of the day.
The second half was highlighted by our 120lb. running back single handedly, or footadley, bouncing off of, and running around, every member of the other team, for a 50 yard touchdown. Our defense mostly shut down their sophomores. The guy at the clock let it run the whole second half and at the end, the score was 70-8.

70-8! I have never been a part of anything like that.

I wish I could say this was a wakeup call but I fear it wasn’t. It was for me.
When one starts at a huge disadvantage, how do you get them to the level where they can compete?
Do circumstances dictate that rules and expectations need to be adjusted?
Where is the balance between discipline and understanding?
These aren’t football questions, they are society questions. That game on Saturday wasn’t just a sporting event but an allusion to bigger things.
That is why my weekend was so hard. Not just losing a game, but the idea that my best efforts were/are inadequate.