Four football players, three life lessons

Once upon a time I was a football coach. It was the 1950s. I was on the staff at a small private school in suburban Chicago. The school was coeducational, preschool through high school. For their fall PE, all the boys in Grades 6 through 10 had to play football. I was the school's treasurer, business manager, freshman boys' adviser and math teacher, sometime janitor - and the frosh-soph football coach. The last was both fun and rewarding. It was also instructive. Four examples:

First, there was Don the quarterback, an intelligent and talented athlete who knew when to follow instructions. In one game, I suggested that he run "22 on 2" the first time we got the ball and, if it worked, to run it again. He did. It did - for seven yards. So he ran it again. It worked - for another seven. He looked. I shrugged. Another gain. And so on. Seventy yards and a touchdown, all because Don followed instructions and ran "22 on 2" each time it worked, without interruption, until we crossed the goal line.

Second, there was Randy, a slight, most unathletic lad. More like an aesthete in appearance, he was the brightest boy in the sophomore class but the biggest bust on the gridiron. In one-on-one drills, he refused to take the initiative and was quite content to be leveled by whomever he was sent up against. But he came to practice, did the exercises, and knew the plays. He did so, knowing that any boy who put out an honest effort through the 10th grade would be excused from football as a junior and senior.

With a couple of games to go, Randy had yet to play in one - which he'd need to do to round out his football experience. I figured guard would be the best position for him. On either offense or defense, he could just curl up on the ground without much chance of there being a lot of momentum generated around him.

In any event, I sent Randy in on defense. On the next play, the opposing lineman in front of him pulled out to lead the running back around end. To my surprise and Randy's, he walked through the opening, found himself in the enemy backfield, and took off after the halfback. Randy may not have been athletic, but he was fleet. He chased the boy with the ball and caught him. Eschewing the traditional tackle, Randy jumped on his opponent, piggyback style, caught him off balance, and brought him to the ground for a two-yard loss.

Randy's football career was complete; my hopes for him had been surpassed. I immediately replaced him with our regular guard. As a junior and a senior, Randy was an exemplary manager for the team.

Third, there was Doug. The antithesis of Randy, he was athletic but not smart. He had just entered the school as a sophomore and in practice demonstrated rare ability as a football player. The problem was that he couldn't learn the plays. So for our first game, I assigned one of the other backs the task of informing Doug, as they left the huddle, what he was supposed to do on the play the quarterback had called.

Our first game came, early on a Saturday morning. We won the toss and elected to receive. Doug caught the ball and ran for a touchdown. We kicked off again and held our opponents; they had to punt. Doug caught the ball and ran for a touchdown. We kicked off again and held again, and they had to punt again - this time the ball landed out of bounds so Doug couldn't get it.

On our first play from scrimmage, we ran "22 on 2," with Doug carrying. He went 60 yards for a touchdown. For reasons quite unlike those in Randy's case, I figured Doug's frosh-soph football experience was complete. I pulled him from the game - so he could play with the varsity that afternoon.

Fourth, there was Mike, to whom I will return in a moment. As adviser to the freshmen boys, I was asked to accompany their art class to a Van Gogh exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Not a connoisseur of the visual arts, I understood my role to be that of chaperon while the teacher held forth. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the teacher was to handle half the class; Mike, with me as disciplinarian, was to handle the other half.

My surprise, and that of my freshmen, was compounded by the fact that Mike was the fullback and a linebacker on the varsity football team. He looked like it, too: a short, bulky, aggressive-looking character whom one wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

Mike was superb. He had my wards, and me, hanging on his every word. He knew what he was talking about.

Four players, three lessons of life confirmed for a football coach: One, looks can be deceiving. Two, some athletes are dumb, but not all. Three, not all aesthetes are sissies.

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