I played football in high school. Most of you don’t know that, because how I spent my fall afternoons and weekends in high school isn’t all that relevant as an adult. The game is viewed differently today than it was then, as decades of bad behavior from student and professional athletes along with an appropriate and growing concern for the trauma that the sport inflicts on the body and more specifically the brain have left players and spectators alike with questions, many difficult to answer.
While I don’t watch football anymore, my own experience with it was positive. Few experiences in my life, in fact, have had as much impact on who am I today.
For those whose exposure to the sport is limited, it is often understood through TV and movies. Programs as seen on Friday Night Lights, coaches like the one trying to get Pink to sign his pledge sheet in Dazed and Confused. Big stadiums, huge crowds, high stakes and nylon shorts-wearing shouting coaches whose one and only concern is winning games. These portrayals, or more accurately caricatures, are not without their basis in reality. But they were not my reality.
My high school, for one, was tiny. There were ninety some odd kids in my graduating class. Our stadium was a modest set of bleachers, our crowds about as big as our school. And the man who coached football at Mountain Lakes High School for 44 years – Doug Wilkins, always just Coach to me – was one of the finest leaders I’ve encountered in all my years, and a truly great man.
He died on Monday.
Now admittedly, when I said the media reality wasn’t my reality, that was true. Mostly. Some of the old high school football tropes did apply. Coach did wear those terrible old BIKE nylon shorts, and he could yell with the best of them when the situation required it.
The big difference between the coach I knew and the coach I saw on screens was that I never had any doubt, ever, where his priorities lay. He wanted to win, and was willing to put in the work to do it. But his priority was helping the players entrusted to him become better men. If that meant sacrificing his best chance to win, so be it.
He taught me many things in the years I spent playing for him, more than I can talk about here. These are a few of the most important.
- You Have to Put in the Work:
As a small high school, we were almost always outclassed from a talent perspective. The other lines were bigger, their skill players faster, their roster deeper. Coach believed that these inherent disadvantages could be overcome through the application of effort.
I have never trained harder than I did in high school. The summer double sessions when I got to college were a cakewalk next to the triple sessions we endured in high school, training on a field that was half crabgrass and rocks and half baseball diamond. Coach made sure the first session in the morning was at a different time every day, to communicate the importance of an attention to detail. One morning it was 7:45, the next 7:15, 8 the day after.
We hit, we ran, we pushed sleds, we did up downs (burpees, you might know them as) until people were vomiting. It was always a delicate thing, making sure you drank enough water to keep hydrated but not so much that you’d get sick.
The lesson this burned into us was that while you can’t control of your talent level, you can control the effort you put in.
- Hurt is Not the Same as Injured:
Another common trope in football media is coaches that are willing to sacrifice their players health in search of a win. Coach never did this; he pulled me from a game with a mild shoulder separation that I certainly could have played through (and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that meddling Jay Moody – hi Jay, and belated thanks!).
What he taught us was that there is a difference between being hurt and being injured. If you play a contact sport, you’re going to be hurt, in some fashion, more or less all the time. There’s always something wrong with you.
The question was whether it was an injury, which is to say something serious and more importantly something that could lead to worse injuries. A separated shoulder was an injury. When I broke a finger, that, well, that could be taped up and wasn’t going to get worse.
The winter my daughter was two, she had the croup. If you’ve ever encountered it, you know how bad the cough is. It’s so bad, in fact, that the doctor’s primary means of diagnosis is asking if your child sounds like a barking seal. One night, she woke herself up in the early hours of the morning sounding like a refugee from Sea World. As I walked in, she stood up in her crib, looked at me, rubbed her hands together, and said “I ok Daddy, I rub some dirt on it.”
My heart almost burst in that moment, both because I was proud of her, and because I had on some level taught her what I myself had been taught by Coach: if you can’t fix it, rub some dirt on it and get back to work.
- Leadership Isn’t Yelling:
As mentioned, Coach could make himself heard. I still remember missing an assignment (I was an offensive lineman) in practice and seeing my friend Lewis (sorry buddy) get pile drived as a result. I could hear the yelling a hundred feet away, “GODDAMMIT O’GRADY, IF YOU DON’T HIT THAT END YOU’RE GOING TO GET SOMEONE KILLED.”
But Coach also understood that sometimes we’re our own worst critics, and that he didn’t need to say a word. We were watching film after one game, a game we had lost, and I made a mistake and someone – our fullback, I think (hi James!) – ended up being tackled for a loss in the backfield.
He slowed the film, which revealed my mistake in slo-mo, backed it up, watched it again, backed it up, watched it a third time, and then continued without comment. He knew that I knew what I’d done wrong, and that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.
There are many buttons you can press with people, and few people were more deft at knowing which to push and when than he was.
- It Takes a Team:
As an incoming freshman, at the beginning of the summer, you got assigned to a “squad.” Squads were small groups of players from a variety of classes, typically led by two seniors. Weekday nights all summer, your squad met for workouts. Some were grueling long distance runs. Others were fun distractions like the annual mud run. We did pushups, bear crawls, up downs – all the things that have since have been popularized by Crossfit.
Squads accomplished two important goals. Most obviously, they left us in peak physical condition. You can’t run in the humid New Jersey summer heat for months and not get into good shape.
But just as importantly, squads integrated classes. Freshman who would otherwise have no contact with seniors during the school year, worked alongside a few along with sophomores and juniors all summer. I still remember when a senior, Dan Shaver, stopped by my house when I was a freshman to pick me up and talked to my Dad about squads for twenty minutes. Squads broke down the artifical barriers between classes that the typical high school social strata establishes.
He also wanted to instill collective accountability. If someone arrived late to triple sessions, all of the pads were piled up to create a comfortable seat for the guilty party. From this perch, they got to watch the rest of the team run a debilitating, crushing set of sprints.
Coach understood that you can’t just show up and be a team: you’ve got to put in the work, and break down the barriers that would otherwise keep potential contributors separated.
- Remember What’s Important:
Every year, there were kids that attended every squad, made every practice, but just weren’t that talented. Coach would find a way to play these kids in big wins, or big losses. But by the time you’re a senior, garbage time in out-of-hand games is not much of a return for the work invested.
Normally, that would be the end of it: if you’re not good enough, you don’t play. Simple. For those that stuck with the program, however, and gave the team everything they had for four years, Coach would find a starting spot somewhere.
I’m certain it cost him many games over the course of his career. I’m equally certain, particularly early in his career, that he took fire for it. But he never wavered, and he stuck by the players that had done everything asked of them.
That’s not how the world works, of course, because winning tends to be everything. But while it was something and something important for him, it wasn’t quite everything. Having his players graduate his program with confidence gained from seeing their hard work rewarded was, by his calculation, far more important.
There’s a reason so many of his former players cared about him, and that’s because he cared about them in return.
So rest in peace, Coach. Apart from my parents and grandparents, there is no person in this world that had a larger impact on my life and career. I carry the lessons you taught me to this day, and I am doing my best to pass them on to my daughter.
There are many difficult questions still to be answered about football and its safety, but I can say honestly that I wouldn’t have given up my time with my team and my coach for anything. I’m glad I played football, and I’m glad I played for Doug Wilkins.
He is missed.