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Friday, November 11, 2016

Coached for Life

Coached for Life
In the middle of a business meeting today, some comments brought to memory and took me back to my glory days on the football gridiron.  I previously made mention of another important lesson I learned while playing high school football in a different post, The Triumph of Defeat, but this message is about something altogether different.

Today, my message is about my relationship with a man who helped shape my life in countless ways, and who will always be a legend in my mind - My former High School football coach.

Football took me on a journey, to say the least.  When I first started playing grid-kid football in the 4th and 5th grade, I actually played Quarterback and linebacker.
4th Grade, First year playing football

That might come as a surprise to some, but in one game in 5th grade while playing for a team in rural Menan, Idaho, I was the only player to score any points in the entire game… for either team, in what ended up being a 32-0 win.
5th grade football picture (with my dog photobombing)
After moving to the Rexburg area, I played my 6th-8th grade years playing fullback and linebacker.
7th Grade football team - many of these guys played with me all the way through high school

But, as sometimes happens, puberty kicked in, combined with a terrible bout of Bronchitis which rendered me sedentary for several months and caused me to miss my sophomore year due to transitory Asthma. As a result, going into my junior year I found that I had unexpectedly grown myself into an offensive lineman.

Our head coach at Madison High School was Preston Haley, and coincidentally, he was also the offensive and defensive line coach, which meant that during positional drills in practice each day, I spent a good amount of time under his watchful and demanding tutelage.

Each afternoon brought a gauntlet of arduous drills: driving a heavy blocking sled until our legs felt like jello, foot and hand movement coordination exercises, mano-a-mano gladiator blocking battles, and countless other calisthenics which I felt sure Coach Haley had conjured up for us while studying from some ancient medieval torture manuals.

As happens with most teenagers still trying to find out who they actually are and what is really going on in life, I was probably pretty self-centered and overly self-conscious. So whenever Coach Haley called me out for a lackluster effort or a missed blocking assignment, I wondered if perhaps he had it out for me.

During one particular game, while playing a bigger school from a division above our own, I had the assignment as the left guard, to pull around the right end on a designed reverse play. The play worked perfectly, and as I pulled around into the open field with the receiver close behind me running up the sideline, there was only one defender who hadn’t fallen for the fake.  All I had to do was block or interfere with the smaller defensive back enough to allow our speedy receiver to sprint past towards what was a certain touchdown.

But as I planted my cleat in the wet turf to make the block, I slipped a bit and stumbled at the defenders knees, allowing him to recover enough to make the tackle.  As I pushed up from grass, already feeling miserable for missing the block, I looked up at our sideline only a few feet away, and to my horror, was right at the feet of a clearly frustrated Coach Haley!

“You’ve got to make that block!” He bellowed.

To say I was embarrassed would be an understatement.  I felt as if I had let not only the entire team down, but also all of the fans who had come to watch the game.  Luckily, we went on to win that game.  But the next Monday in practice, Coach Haley still remembered.

During positional drills he set up that play and made me run that pulling blocking assignment at least a dozen times in a row until both he and I were convinced that I would never miss that block again.

It was during times like that, as an insecure teenager, that I sometimes wondered why I was playing football.  Why was I subjecting myself to the grueling practices?  Why was it really so important to be able to perform the blocking sequence of “Step. Explode. Drive!” relentlessly over and over again?  When I woke up in the mornings only to discover new bruises and deep aching muscles that I never knew existed, was it really all worth it?

Sometimes I wondered about such things and questioned my commitment during those dog days of practice.  But all of the sweat, blood and tears, along with the tough, demanding and ever-present gaze of Coach Haley lead to one thing… Winning!

During the 4 years from 9th – 12th grade, my class of football athletes only lost one game and won 3 consecutive State Championships.
1984 State Championship Team - (So many good memories with the men in this picture)

Coach Haley demanded intense effort and execution each and every day at practice, and sometimes, as in my case, we didn’t always appreciate it in the heat of the moment.  But when game time came around, and we were dominating our opponents in front of cheering fans in the stands, the thrill and sweet taste of victory swallowed up all the pain of the practice fields.

The timeless lessons about life which Coach Haley invested countless hours ingraining into a scrappy bunch of teenagers have surely rippled out throughout the lives of every young man he interacted with.  What could have easily been mistaken for harsh, judgmental correction, was actually motivated by a desire to instill into a bunch of impressionable adolescents a vastly important lesson… To improve and achieve success, it takes effort… consistent, persistent and refining effort over and over again.  But also the realization that the effort is worth it!

Winning on the football gridiron, at your job, or within the walls of your home with your family all take effort.  Surely we will make mistakes and occasionally “miss an important blocking assignment” along the way.  But that doesn’t mean that you are going to be benched, or that you can’t pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, and try again, and again, and again until you get it right.  It just takes effort and a willingness to receive some coaching, and give it your all.

What Preston Haley helped me realize is that having someone around who cares enough to correct you when you make a mistake is important.  It might feel a bit awkward or uneasy at the time, but most people around us actually want us to succeed and be a winner in life.  So we need to take corrective advice and suggestions from our parents, friends, co-workers, etc… for what they are - An opportunity to improve and become better, so we aren’t doomed to repeat those same mistakes over and over again.

As hard as those embarrassing and challenging moments were in the moment, they helped shape me into the man I am today.  Instead of hating Coach Haley for his “tough love”, we learned from, deeply respected and were willing to walk through fire for him and strive to improve and become better… and that is what made him and us all winners!
Newspaper clipping of us celebrating our State Championship victory
(that's me yelling right behind #32 & #75, my good friends Troy Hastings and Rod Jones, and my future brother-in-law Derek Jensen is #45 on the far left)
And that is the way our relationship may often feel with our Heavenly Father.  Although He has a profound love and compassion for us, He also desires us to improve and become better in every way of life… and sometimes that means asking more of us.  To become more kind and forgiving, even when it is hard.  To have to work, struggle and reach to find the spiritual and temporal answers we seek.  It’s not because He doesn’t want to give us those blessings, but because He wants us to be changed in the process.  And that process takes practice and repetition to ingrain those reactions into the very fiber of our souls, so that when those “game time” moments in life come, we will be able to rise to the occasion and be victorious because of the opportunities He has already provided us to practice those skills in our daily lives.

So here is a shout out to all the amazing “Coaches” in our lives, who care enough to help us become better!  We are ALL worth the effort!
Coach Haley, Myself, and a former teammate, Derek Jensen, who became my brother-in-law at a football game in 2015 in which Coach Haley was honored during the halftime ceremony.  He will always be a legend in my mind!
(His dear wife Mary is standing behind us in the background)