Sunday morning I was riding a school bus.
Yellow on the outside, with plastic seats on the inside. Filled with thirty nervous adolescents and a few tense coaches. Friendly driver with sweat stained souvenir Blue Jays hat.
An hour bounce along the highway ahead of me. Opening game of my Bantam football team that I coach.
As we shuffled up the highway it was all I could do to mask my nerves. Small talk, a few quips. Several shouts to tell my players to either sit down or stop screeching. The irony of me screaming at kids to stop screaming was somehow lost on me.
Coaching youth sports is not supposed to be about winning. It’s supposed to be about life lessons, role modelling, growth, and development. The bloggers, script writers, and propagandists like myself endlessly espouse it’s virtues.
Easy to understand principles and all, in most normal situations. Except the one I found myself in on Sunday. My team headed to play the team that had popped us by a ruthless 84-14 tally last season. Sorry, did I mention this was football and not basketball?
Somehow, at the time, the score didn’t seem all that bad. Perhaps our 72-12 opening season loss conditioned us for taking a pummelling. Perhaps it was because we had lost our third game 53-0.
But as we headed for our 2017 opener against the same inflicted, it felt a lot worse. I could see it in the eyes of my 13 & 14 year old players. They had been humiliated last year, they knew it, and they feared it happening again.
That loss was by a score I have never suffered in some twenty-three years and now thirty odd teams of volunteer coaching. It made me ponder. Why did the other coach not stop the onslaught?
I’ve never had the chance to score 84 points on someone in a football game. I hope I never will. I am not one to harp about sports justice, but what can possibly be achieved by lapping your opponent six times!!!!!!
You can probably forgive my edginess. I wasn’t worried about losing, I just didn’t want my kids to be humiliated, again. I told them pregame my request for them was to be GAMERS.
Don’t give me that puzzled look, like they did, I always want to strive to win. But in order to win the game, you have to put yourself in a position to be in the game. Focus on keeping yourselves in the game first, I asked, and then worry about the final outcome later.
At first it was clear they hadn’t listened. Or maybe they had listened but hadn’t heard. Perhaps I was the one who wasn’t listening, to their nerves, to their anxiety, to their tension.
We went out and got a first down. Hurrah. Maybe more to come?
We then got a few more yards. Then missed an easy catch. Then had to make a fourth down decision.
To make it a game I felt the need to strike. So I went for it. One of our rookies, in his first game of football ever in his whole entire life, scored a beautiful, improbable, broken tackle, sixty-yard plus touchdown.
But a flag hit the ground before he hit paydirt. The frustration erupted from my mouth before the referees arms went in the air. It was a stupid penalty that didn’t help the kid score, but triggered the beginning of the end.
Touchdown wiped away, we were forced to punt. The elation had turned to dread and I sensed we may be headed down Humiliation Boulevard again. So did the enemy as they confidently jogged to the line of scrimmage and looked over our dispirited defense.
Less than twenty seconds later we were down 6-0. All it took was one play. One hand-off to their star running back, who indeed had a beard covering his young face, intimidating Samson-like hair down his back, and a body that ran past every one of our players who missed their faux attempts to stop him from scoring.
I tried to restrain myself, but didn’t have it in me. I lit a fire on everybody within breathing distance of my dragon’s tongue: players, my fellow volunteer coaches, surprisingly not the refs, but most definitely the grass field, the weather, my horoscope, two kids I went to Grade 3 with, my choice of shirt, and my number one target of all time – Mh3. My tirade was highly effective at ensuring we only played more poorly and it was not surprising that our opponent quickly scored again.
The electronic scoreboard predicted our fate. Down 12-0. Only 72 more points to go and the Vegas line would have been met, to the merriment of the many bettors watching this tweenage tussle. The yellow bus suddenly seemed like an oasis I could only hope to reach.
However I have forgotten an important part of this story. I have forgotten the long winter of preparation this team had put in. Many of our players attended indoor camps each week, recruited their friends to join the team, lost weight, got stronger, grew taller, and promised themselves they wouldn’t be humiliated this season.
Indeed our kids are gamers. Gamely they fought back and gamely they turned the tide and gamely they succeeded in stopping the other team’s drives. When they weren’t on the field they were gathering with each other for impromptu pep talks, strategy sessions, and because they aren’t as football obsessed as me – a few silly jokes.
It was still 12-0 at halftime. But you know what? It was a game.
In the second half they did as the coaches asked them. It was a simple request. Win every play, one at a time, and the game result will take care of itself.
With less than two minutes to go our quarterback sneaked the ball thirty-six inches to paydirt. The score was 14-12 for us. Boy, what a game.
Still I questioned my strategy. Had I left too much time on the clock for our opponent to notch a Bradyesque like comeback? This wasn’t the time to second guess a decision already made, but that’s me.
We had to kickoff and hope to contain their star player who stared down our kicker from forty yards away, steeled in the knowledge that his coach had designed a return play for him to run for glory. Our kicker was instructed to defy their plan with a target away from their stud. But that guaranteed us nothing.
It was a perfect kick but unfortunately still landed in the hands of one of their fleet receivers. He gathered up the ball and a head of steam as he raced forward for five yards, ten yards, twenty yards, a crease to our end zone emerging in front of him, before one of our most passionate players flew in and knocked the ball from his grasp for a fumble we recovered. BALL GAME!
Apparently the bus ride home through weekend traffic was much longer than our first leg, though I don’t think my singing players or laughing coaches took notice. I was enjoying myself beyond belief, but trying not to show too much emotion to the players over the victory, in order to falsely convey some life lesson.
Hopefully you’re okay if I confess to you that it was nice to be in the game, but was even nicer to win.