‘The Coach We Never Played For’
In 1972, back in the mid-west, like most freshman high school football players at the start of the season, we were excited, unsure, scared, confused but committed to making the team. We needed to find out how tough we had to be to play high school football. We loved the game but those first practices were killers and thanks to our older brothers, we had heard the coaches would run us until we threw up. It didn’t take long for some of us to find out they were right. We figured out after the first few hitting practices that some guys liked to hit and some guys never found the front of the line in those drills. It all started to come together as we learned the basics. Most of us figured out how to put on our pads, melt down a mouth guard, fix our chin straps and looked forward to playing in the games every week. After we finished our freshman season, five of us freshman were called up by the coach to play the last three games on the sophomore team. To say the least we were pumped to be called up. We all started in those games and made a big impact.
We were hooked. After football season ended we started hitting the weights in the gym and played pickup basketball or some wrestled. We all looked forward to next season to be on the sophomore team and we were obsessed with getting faster and stronger. The rest of our freshman teammates thought we were crazy and they were right. We were in the workout zone. We borrowed a few heavy equipment tires from the local tire shop one night and hid them behind the stadium so we could flip them down the field. We found cars to push up slopes while we listened to eight track tapes blasting our music. We ran up and down steep dirt hills in our spikes to improve our speed and always ended up eating some dirt. We put chest freezers full of frozen beef on to saw horses to do calf raises and used heavy ship chains to work our arms and shoulders. We read what the pros were doing for workouts and copied them the best we could. We were cross fit training but didn’t know it.
Then one day, the Varsity Head Football Coach, a legendary 30 year coach who had sent many players to college and on to the pros, walked in to the gym and found the five of us working out and groaning to lift all the weights we could find. He stared at us then walked over and said “come er boys”. We gathered around him and stared at our shoes thinking we were in trouble but not sure. We then learned about the amazing power of a football coach. He said, with his gravelly voice, “Boys, you keep this up and I’ll have you all playing varsity next year”. Then he turned and walked out of gym. We stared at each other and someone said they knew of only one guy that moved up to varsity as a sophomore and he was playing college ball now. We were stunned. The next few months were a blur and we proceeded to work harder than ever to live up to what coach had said. He had inspired us and we looked forward to the possibilities and playing for this legendary coach.
Then tragedy struck. Just four months later, in late spring, our Varsity Football Coach died almost suddenly from cancer. It was tough time to see a whole school and town grieve. We watched varsity players break down in tears, read news articles, and attended the funeral where we watched thousands of players, parents, teachers, coaches and others honor this coach who had just once spoken briefly to us. We were devastated. We decided to dedicate our workouts to our coach and worked even harder to honor his belief in us. But as young freshman, we didn’t know if a new coach would know what coach had said to us and our hopes started to dwindle.
After a summer of sweat filled workouts and part time jobs we started football practice with the sophomore team. At the end of that first week of practice the new Varsity Coach gathered the five of us together. He said he had heard what Coach had told us about playing varsity and thought we deserved a chance to move up to play on the varsity team. I still remember looking at the faces of my teammates, eyes and mouths wide open. Our teammates all cheered us on and we all got taller that day.
Our new varsity teammates showed us some tough ‘welcome to the big time’ love as they helped us prepare for varsity football. We made an impression during hitting drills and continued to excel. By the beginning of the season we all earned starting positions, became three year varsity starters and earned All-Conference and other honors. We made lifelong friendships like most football players do and became part of the proud tradition of high school football.
After high school three of us received NCAA Div I college football scholarships and earned college degrees. Another received a Div II scholarship, earned a degree and went on to play professional football. We all became successful leaders in different industries, coached some football and raised families.
We all live in different parts of the country now and get together to share stories like many old teammates do. We remember the big wins and tough losses, teammates, hard crazy workouts and fun times. We also remember an old high school football coach that noticed a bunch of young committed freshman football players in the gym struggling to become better. We remember how he inspired us, believed in us and became ‘the coach we never played for’.