Monday, March 3, 2014

For Love of the Game

When our son Berto began playing flag football at age nine, there was no dream team at first. All the coaches in the league were volunteers, dads of the players. At the one practice a week, the kids ran a lot, goofed off a bit, and tried to learn to catch and throw properly, but specific skills were not taught, no blocking techniques and certainly no plays were practiced. There was no solid strategy at all.

So the games were a bit confused, obviously. Berto was a great runner and wanted badly to try his hand at quarterback but didn't get the opportunity, because the coaches were not really evaluating the kids' desires or skills. Many balls were dropped. Many kids still seemed afraid of the object of the catch. Many games were lost. Berto had his fair share of discouragement.

But there was one team that shone in the league, and we quickly became aware of them, mainly because they decimated every team they faced. The other teams developed a fear of facing this team, not because they were comprised of big, mean-faced kids or a loud-mouthed coach, but because they truly understood the game and how to execute. You were just sure to lose. Yet they wouldn't pull your flag without handing it back to you respectfully, and if anyone on your team got hurt, they were the first to take a knee.

One season, when Berto's team was badly defeated by these lone stars of the league (40-0), my husband and son walked past them on the way to the parking lot. The coach was kneeling by his players in a circle, talking to each one about the game, what had gone well, their favorite moments and what needed improvement, and Matthew pointed and said to our son, "Berto, if you really want to play football, that's the coach you need."

No other coach did what this coach did. He called plays, and his boys knew them, which meant he had constructive huddles. His team snapped the ball like professionals and played defined positions. His kids caught the ball very well, jumping, diving - whatever it took - and pulling it in neatly. Perhaps most importantly, while other coaches released their teams immediately after the game to wander home, he talked to his boys post-game every week, welcoming their feedback and encouraging team spirit and respect.

We didn't get on his roster the next season, despite the fact that we had a good friend, Beth, whose son, Reese, was on the team.

"Come to our team," she kept urging me. "He's a great coach!"

I didn't know you could request a coach, and we didn't even know the coach's name for a while. Maybe we were just timid.

Then we were placed on the team for the winter season. Call it what you will: pure chance, dumb luck, golden opportunity for our boy. I like to think it smacks just a bit of divine intervention. God hears our hearts, and he answers those longings that can work for the good. And this longing that Berto - that we all - had to learn from this great coach most definitely had great potential for good in our son's life.

But, strangely, when Matthew and Berto showed up for Meet-the-Coach night, it was a ghost town; you could almost hear the eerie harmonica playing on the cheesy wind of the pizza joint. No one from the team was there, not one single soul, but Matthew knew where we'd landed; we were on "the team". He believed Stacie from the league when she assured him that we were going to love Coach Ryan.

We understood, Matthew best of all, that Berto would have some catching up to do. I asked how it was when they came home from that first practice. There was excitement in their eyes, but they had little time for answers and conjectures; they went out in our street to practice all the new plays Berto would need to know. That whole first season they showed up early to practice and left late to get up to speed, and Coach Ryan noticed. Berto was at last going to get that chance to play quarterback regularly, sharing that responsibility with a talented boy named Connor who Coach Ryan had nicknamed Franchise for his ability to make decisions as QB. Matthew got noticed, too, you might say. Very soon he was recruited to help Ryan with coaching. In fact, many of the dads helped, bonding over drills and discipline, a coalition of role models.

Now we were certain Berto would at last know what it felt like to win regularly, but that was not what made it our dream team. It was a family, a network of support. Team Mom, Dani, pulled everyone together, organized everything for the schedule, and she went above and beyond for the boys. Every jersey had the player's name on back and often a special team logo added. Everyone received the same trophy, voting on favorites. Dani patrolled the sidelines at games, taking countless photographs of the boys in action. At the end-of-season parties, we would all admire and cherish these snapshots when an album was handed out (albums that Dani designed and pulled together personally). The time and effort she spent for the families astonished us. I doubt we'll see another team mom like her.

Last night I was sure we would all be crying at our farewell. I'm surprised we weren't, but we had one last huddle in which a few families shared how this team had supported them through very challenging times in their personal lives, and that did spark tears. And the boys all got up to speak about their favorite part of this season. Many of them shared the love, talking about memorable plays their teammates had made, and many talked about just loving being on "this team".

Berto said, "I love this team, because I really learned how to play football from a great coach and other players like Connor on quarterbacking. Before that I was just a kid running this way, because his coach told him to."

I know exactly what he means. I've seen how much our boy has grown, how they have all sprouted. In the last couple games, he and his teammates were calling some of their own plays on offense, then reading the other team and yelling caution and encouragement on defense.

When the assistant coaches got up to share, Matthew spoke in jest about that first Meet-the-Coach night and how not one single family showed up (they simply requested Ryan as coach again and stayed home) and said sarcastically, "Thanks for that." But then he added in all sincerity, "My son could not have asked for a better coach."

Children never forget a great coach. He does so much more than teach them about a sport. He teaches them about life, giving them ideas and values that will follow them into adulthood and inspire them to work hard and treat all others with respect in whatever they do. I remember reading how much credit Randy Pausch, the charismatic orator and author of The Last Lecture, gave to his childhood football coach, Coach Graham. Maybe someday Berto will credit Coach Ryan for helping him to achieve his dreams.

In the end my words to express our gratitude to Coach Ryan, Team Mom, my wonderful husband Matthew and our whole team family are inadequate, but there was a wonderful quote in the last album Dani put together. It said:

The mediocre Coach tells. The good Coach explains. The superior Coach demonstrates. The best Coach inspires!

Thanks for the inspiration, Coach!

This post is dedicated to the Line 10 Dynasty. You know who you are, and I hope you know what you mean to us. May God bless you all and shine His light on your path wherever you may roam.


  1. Berto - he's our Franchise. That's my boy!

    1. Thanks, Dad. Wish you had been able to come to one of the games.

      And while I'm here, I forgot to add one more great thing about Coach Ryan:

      Whenever a player on the opposing team made a good block or a good pull or a good catch against one of our players, Ryan always congratulated them, praised them loudly, encouraged them. I really admired that. He was lifting up more than just our boys when he could.

  2. Very nice write-up. Though we didn't finish the last couple of seasons with you all, we affirm everything you said as being true of our experience with Cade. It was a special ride.

    1. It really was, and we missed your family! Thanks for leaving a comment, Brett.

  3. We are in hearty agreement. We are very grateful for Cade's years on the team. Ryan and Daniel did an amazing job.

    1. Yes, we are so very grateful as well. It was a gift to be part of the team.

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