5 Lessons Learned from My Son's High School Football Experience
This morning, a Facebook memory pop-up reminded me that 4 years ago today was the day that a high school football career came full circle.
It was the night of October 31st, 2014 when my son, Marcus Smith, a senior tight end helped his team defeat a division foe by making several key 3 down receptions to keep the chains moving as well as a 91 yard TD reception. That win allowed them to go on to win a conference championship.
To me, however, it represented so much more. It represented a culmination of events… the final chapter of a story that is worth sharing to any parent who is trying to navigate the ups and downs of their child’s high school athletic experience.
As a former high school and college football athlete, I knew the value that participation in high school football would offer. Of course, like any football dad, I also wanted to see my son take the field under Friday night lights. But more importantly, I wanted my son to be exposed to the trans-formative experience that football could have on his life. The problem, however, was that as of the beginning of his 8th grade year, Marcus didn’t want anything to do with football.
After some gentle but consistent ‘positive encouragement’ I convinced him to give it a try. I knew that he had enough athleticism, size and natural ability to be an asset to his team. I also knew from coaching his AAU and middle school basketball teams that he would be a good teammate.
His first year he played quite a bit on both sides of the ball as a tight end and as a defensive end. He wasn’t, however, a very good football player. He showed signs of being good but as a newcomer to the sport he had a lot to learn.
On one early occasion, he made a very athletic play by catching a tipped pass and running it downfield for a 40-yard gain. After being tackled, he gave the football to the referee and started running back to the original line of scrimmage! He didn’t even understand the concept of moving the chains and establishing a new line of scrimmage.
On another occasion, he elevated between 2 defenders, high into the air to high point a pass. It was truly a highlight worthy catch. He turned up-field and began streaking down the sidelines toward the end zone. After being chased down from behind, the defender knocked the ball out of his hands and recovered it. I sat in the stands and smiled while shaking my head.
When playing sports, there is one way to learn and that is to fail. As a parent, you need to focus on the positives when they fail. Recognize the good things that they did in the process of failing. Then help them learn the lessons for that particular sport as well the corresponding lesson from that experience that can be transferred to LIFE!
In this case, get out there and gain experience and be prepared to make mistakes and fail. Learn the hard lessons early. And when you do something good, finish it! Complete the circle.
During this first year of football there were several concerns that I had that began to fester in my mind.
One was that the team that he played for was terrible. The parents of 2 of the ‘star’ players were actually openly critical of me for signing my son up for football “so late in the process”. To them, 8th grade was too late! I thought to myself…“are you kidding me?” Here is a kid that is a good athlete who has developed transferable skills from playing other sports. I played division-1 college football so it should be obvious to anyone that there was the potential for some good pedigree that would help him. On top of that, he was a great kid and wonderful teammate.
After the 1st game, one of those aforementioned parents shouted to me as I walked to the car.. “hey Smith, why don’t you and your boy just stick to basketball!”
There will be toxic parents along the way who have absolutely no perspective on the process that their kids are going through. The early years of any sport are developmental. Kids are learning. Their growing physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s way too early to determine who will rise and who will fall by the time those kids reach varsity level.
As it turns out, both of those kids ended up not even playing varsity football their senior year. Not for lack of talent, but for lack of direction. No surprise when being raised by a parent like that right?
During Marcus’s ninth grade football season my concerns began to grow. One of my concerns was that my son didn’t seem to understand that it was actually 'ok' to hit someone on the field. Contact in football is not only allowed, it’s actually highly encouraged! As a tight end, he did a pretty good job blocking but he wasn’t coming close to his full potential. When he played defensive end, his soft play really became obvious.
Physically, Marcus was bigger and more developed than most of the kids yet he played soft. I knew that if he was to become a good football player he would need to learn to be a more physical football player.
I remember a great conversation that I had with a friend of mine who owned a Karate studio. While expressing my frustration on this issue, he told me that he sees the same thing with kids in his studio. He suggested that “we raise these kids to be nice to each other. To walk away from fights and violence. Then, we throw them out onto a football field and tell them to go hit someone as hard as they can! To them, that’s fundamentally the opposite thing that we’ve established inside of them. It’s not ingrained in their core behavior or in their inherent ways of thinking.”
I have to tell you, that made a lot of sense to me. From that conversation, I learned to be patient with the process of him becoming a more physical football player.
My greatest concern, however, really began to resonate during that 9th grade year. His first year of high school ball. My concern was that he was part of a particularly negative group of kids. The fact that they were bad football players is something that I could have lived with but the fact that they were poor teammates is something that I couldn’t.
Oftentimes, I could hear the kids yelling at each other from my seat at the top row of the stadium when things were breaking down. They pointed fingers at each other and said disparaging things to each other. It was very tough on both Marcus and I.
I figured next year, the JV Coach - Travis Bassam, a coach that I had a lot of respect for, would straiten them out.
They finished the season winless. To me, all that these kids seemed to know was how to do was to lose football games and blame each other in the process. What a miserable experience. All I wanted, and all any parent should want out of their child’s high school athletic journey is a positive experience. It’s very important that parents and athletes have proper perspective. Most don’t.
If you're a parent who thinks that their kid is going to earn a scholarship to play college football here’s some perspective… The chances of receiving a division 1 football scholarships are very remote. There are only about 125 division one programs, and each has 85 scholarships. That means there are roughly 10,000 scholarshiped division one football players out there. With roughly 1.5 million high school players, the odds are less than 1% that a high school football player will earn a scholarship. Knowing this, it’s important to focus on having a positive experience and learning valuable life lessons from the sport.
To me, the definition of a ‘positive experience’ for my son meant to have fun, enjoy new experiences and learn that you can accomplish things that are very hard! Football is hard. There is no sport that requires more from an athlete.
Football is hot, sweaty, and physically & emotionally demanding. To be successful it requires the utmost in teamwork and selflessness. It teaches you how to get along with and work with people from all walks of life, race and religion. To work toward a common cause! All I wanted was for Marcus to have this type of experience.
The toxicity among his teammates become crystal clear later that year when I served as their assistant freshman basketball coach. Let’s just say that I was completely disgusted by what I witnessed. The truth is, there were really only a couple bad apples but they ruined it for everyone. Those kids where some of the best athletes but they were also bad teammates.
The JV football season came and went. Unfortunately, Coach Bassam wasn’t a magician. As much as he tried, he didn’t have any significant impact on this group of kids.
I was assisting with the varsity football team that year so I was able to see things from the inside. Coach Bassam did all the right things by instilling more discipline while trying to hold kids accountable but the toxic treatment from those bad teammates persisted.
Later that year, toward the end of Marcus’s JV basketball season something pivotal happened while picking him up from practice. As soon as he got in the car he said to me – “Dad, this is my last year of playing basketball.” I almost fainted. I couldn’t believe it! I remember what I said like it was yesterday. I said, “Marcus, you’re a starting basketball player at a big high school. You’re going to have a great varsity career! What the heck are you talking about?”
He said to me, “Dad, I can’t take Johnny any more. He’s taken all the fun out of it for me!”
‘Johnny’ is not the kids real name but for the sake of anonymity, that what I’m calling him now.
I drove the car for about a minute as I gathered my senses then I pulled the car over and put it in park.
I said, “I get it Marcus. I understand. And unfortunately, Johnny plays football too. And we know what a disaster that experience has been. And it’s going to continue because, in my opinion, the varsity coach isn’t going to change it.”
I told Marcus - “You know what buddy? If you want to get the heck out of this school and start fresh somewhere else, you have my full blessing. We happen to live in the West Valley High School district. They have one heck of a good football program and you’re one heck of a player.”
Without hesitation Marcus said “Yes! That’s what I want to do Dad. I want to go to West Valley.”
Sometimes a change is needed. In order to be successful, you need to be in the right environment. To grow, you need fertile soil.
Too often, people are critical of people who make the decision to move on. To change their circumstances. They say – “the grass isn’t always greener.” Well let me tell you, sometimes it is! Whether it be leaving a job, a relationship or a school, sometimes change is good. And for Marcus, on so many levels, that decision may have been one of the best decisions of his life.
West Valley High School
Less that one week after that fateful ride home, Marcus, his mother and I were visiting the administration at West Valley High School in anticipation of an immediate transfer.
During our visit with the vice principal - Mr. Booth, there was a fire drill so we had to go outside. As we visited during the fire drill I saw a kid dressed in athletic gear approaching from the gymnasium. From a few hundred yards away I noticed his calve muscles protruding. I said to Marcus “look there, I be he’s one of the football players”. At about the same time Mr. Booth said “There’s Austin Clark! He is one of our football captains.” He shouted “Hey Austin.. come on over here would you?”
Austin approached and was introduced to us. Mr. Booth made Austin aware that Marcus was considering transferring and that he was as football player. Austin proceeded to look Marcus directly in the eye as if here were looking through him into his soul and said, “Marcus, welcome to West Valley. I’m excited to go to work with you! If you need anything Marcus…anything at all, I want you to get a hold of me right away ok?”
Wow! I was just stunned. Consider where he was coming from. Think about the treatment that he was accustom to. I’ve been a lifelong student of leadership and I can tell you, I’ve never witnessed that kind of behavior and those kind of words from a 17-year-old student-athlete before. We knew we had found a new home!
The transfer was made in late February. Within a few weeks, the head varsity football coach, Greg Grandell, brought in an NFL trainer to work with the kids on a Saturday. It was my first ‘peek under the tent’ of the program. As the kids were doing drills in the gymnasium, I ventured into he weight room to look around. There were blown up action photos of West Valley Football decorating the walls. There were clocks ticking down to the first game of the season as well as to the championship game. There were artifacts from past teams. Every single piece of equipment was racked and organized. The room was clean. Simply put, it oozed with pride of ownership.
At that moment, Coach Grandell walked into the room. We didn’t know each other well but he knew who I was. I said to him, “Coach, you’re really doing things right here at West Valley with your program”. He said, “thanks Eric but it’s not ‘my’ program. It’s ‘our’ program.” He said “What you see here takes a community. It takes moms and dads and members of the community to get things done to this level. We’re successful here at West Valley because I encourage others to be a part of it. If we need something built, I get dads who are contractors involved. If we need something organized, I get moms involved in organizing it.”
There are no accidents. Success is intentional. An organization is merely a lengthened shadow of it’s people. Marcus was able to get around a top-notch group of kids who loved each other. And they weren’t afraid to tell each other that either. That spring, Coach Grandell invited me to join his staff so for Marcus’s two varsity seasons I was able to be a part of the culture of an over achieving football program.
At West Valley, through the leadership of their coaches, kids learn to express to their teammates their love for each other? Verbally! How many coaches teach their players that, especially in the ‘tough sport’ of football? Most football coaches think the ‘L’ word is soft so they don’t use it.
There weren’t too many team talks that Coach Grandell gave that didn’t involve the word ‘love’. And it’s use certainly didn’t soften the kids because we pounded most of the teams that we played. And that included the bigger schools on our schedule as well. That tradition of winning football continues to this day at West Valley. They are known to be one of the winningest programs in Northern California in the Max Preps era.
As for my son’s ‘soft’ level of play displayed during his first few years in football. Well that changed too. He learned over time, through a positive and highly disciplined environment, how to be a tough and productive football player on the field and a loving and caring citizen off it.
Marcus’s transfer was a huge success. He not only learned how to be a winner on the field but he also learned that that good teams treat each other with respect, and great ones love each other through the process of becoming successful. He also learned that taking control of his own life, putting himself in fertile soil for growth by being around positive and disciplined people would enable him to become the best version of himself.
During Marcus’s junior year, with the leadership of the coaching staff and kids like Austin Clark, Brady Casselman and quarterback - Kody Karpinski, we won both a conference and district championship. His senior year resulted in another conference championship.
Were the championships fun? Sure...Absolutely! But what’s even more fun than looking back at wins is looking at where he is now as a result of those ‘life lessons’ learned through football. Can you learn those valuable lessons in other sports or team activities? Yes, absolutely! But to me, football is the greatest teacher of them all.
So when I woke up this morning and saw a Facebook reminder of what happened on this date four years ago, you can understand why I cracked a little smile.
Eric Smith is a former NCAA Division-1 quarterback and high school football coach. Eric is the owner and director of The Winning Edge Quarterback Academy, where he coaches and mentors aspiring quarterbacks in Durham, North Carolina. He and his wife Lisa also own the Durham, Chapel Hill and Burlington NYFO (National Youth Football Org) 7 on 7 'non-contact' football leagues.
In addition, Eric is a certified leadership speaker, trainer and coach for the John Maxwell Leadership.
In December, 2018, Coach Smith will publish a book called 'The Winning Edge Way.. How to be a 3 Dimensional Competitor' It's a guide to learning how to elevate yourself, your teammates and the game itself.
To connect with Coach Smith, visit https://www.winningedgeskills.com/,