I am a father. My sons live with their mother in a small town in the foothills of Tennessee. My eldest son is away with his team at a pre-season camp. Four football practices a day for a week. Let that sink in for a minute. They practice at 05:30, 09:00, 13:00 and 18:00.
He will be a sophomore. He called me tonight in tears and told me he wants to quit football. He had reasons and all that practice wasn’t one of them.
I am a friend. A friend of mine from my hometown in New Jersey has a son who will be a sophomore. My friend wrote me a couple of months ago. My friend was concerned because his son wanted to quit football.
I am a head high school football coach in Massachusetts. Of the 24 kids who ended freshmen year with us and will be sophomores next year, 11 have quit football; most at the end of the school year.
For most football players, moving up from freshmen ball to practicing with the varsity is a big transition. More than anything sophomore year is about paying your dues and taking your lumps from the older kids. Sophomores usually don’t play much other than JV, yet they practice just as hard. In fact practice is usually harder for them because sophomores are not as physically and mentally mature as most of the juniors and seniors they face each day.
Contrary to popular belief kids are not dumb. They see all of this work and little reward. The problem is these guys tend to think short term. They think of immediate gratification and not delayed gratification. They want to quit because they are afraid of the work, the competition and the growing responsibility. Yet, they are not developed enough to realize the benefits of paying ones dues; of putting time and a heck of a lot of effort in with no proportionate reward on their horizon. But their horizon is short sighted.
As a friend and coach, I said my peace. Football, this regimented, grueling, enterprise is worth it. It is invaluable in what it can teach a young man. But those lessons are not immediately apparent. The incredible worthiness of those lessons are only realized later, towards the end of the high school career and then the move on to college, work and family.
A couple of years ago six players were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During their induction speeches three of those players told stories of how they had quit playing football until some parent or coach talked them out of it. These guys reached the pinnacle of their profession, yet they would have never made it had they quit in high school.
Now I’m very pragmatic. I realize none of these kids, including my own, has more than a sliver of a chance to play on Sundays. I have been coaching 20+ years and have only coached one kid who made it to the pros. But in all that time I have coached I have never once had a kid tell me he regretted playing football. Never once have I had a kid tell me he wished he had quit and done something else; or nothing at all.
In contrast, I have had scores of kids tell me they wish they had stuck with it and not quit.
What happens is people realize it’s not about all that practice, weight lifting, time at camps, time missed with girlfriends, and dealing with teammates and coaches you can’t stand. What they realize is that it’s about the man you become. The man you become as a result of dealing with all that sweat, blood, pain, sacrifice and inconvenience.
Football players get put in so many ridiculously difficult physical, mental, social, and competitive situations that they learn to deal with darn near anything. They come to lose their physical, mental, social, and competitive weaknesses and replace them with character and mental toughness. Guys who don’t quit are stronger people than those who do quit.
I didn’t see this coming with my son. He loves football. He worked hard all spring and summer working out with his teammates. Yet the call came. Here I am a thousand miles away. Yet I had my answers. I had my words. I was prepared to help him thanks to my friend and all those boys who quit my team.
I told my son how I never once pushed him to play football. He could have played soccer. He was the one who decided to play football. I told him how proud I was of him. Proud of the excellent student, excellent citizen, and great son and brother he has become.
I told him I would be proud of him no matter what.
But you bet your ass I told him not to quit. Not because of me but because of him.
I told him to get through the 4th practice of the day and to call me. He pulled himself together and he made it through.
He called me and I told him all of the personal reasons why he should not quit. I tried to help him see what his life would be like without ball. He doesn’t have it easy down there. Football gives him a means to get out of his house.
I told him how football was far and away his best sport ( he plays two others). I told him how he might want to play in college someday and how his teammates would be more like him in college than his current high school teammates. In short, if he plays college ball he would be surrounded by student-athletes and not just guys playing ball.
But more than any other thing, I told him football would teach him things no other sport, except maybe wrestling, ever could. It would teach him how to be tough. I told him he already learns character from the kids in his AP and Honors classes. But he also needed to learn how to be tough.
I told him in order to become all he could be he would need both; character AND mental toughness. I told him I loved him, and I would help him through. But I also reminded him, it’s not about the person you are this moment, it’s about the man you become.
The man you become. That’s the goal to stay focused on. It’s not about the teenage years. No, those years are a means to an end; the man you become.
He has 12 more practices within the next 3 days. He told me he would get through this week. He promised me we would talk Saturday and he would not tell me what I want to hear, but what he really felt.
I love my son. That’s why I will do all I can to make sure he doesn’t quit. Some day he is either gonna thank me or tell me he wished he had listened to me.
This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been through this a hundred times, almost twenty times this year alone. I know how this ends.
I want what will help him later in life, so I’ll keep praying for him to find the strength not to quit.
Update: My son is still playing football. Football players all have their moments when they want to quit. They all can readily give a thousand reasons to quit. But when you come to realize that you are a competitor and want to be the best man you can be someday, you press on and do what will make you better, and not what is easy. I am proud of him. I am grateful for the ability to keep the focus on what is most important; the man he will become.
A new class of Pro Football Hall of Famers was inducted yesterday. As always, I watched the ceremony and listened to what the players and their inductors had to say. I have done this as long as I can remember. Each time I am a better man for watching the ceremony as there are always great lessons in character and mental toughness to be learned. Once again many of the players spoke of the moments when they didn’t want to play football. Willie Roaf’s dad, Jack Butler’s college roomates, Curtis Martin’s high school coach, pastor and mother, Dermonti Dawson’s coach, all convinced them to play football and/ or stick with it. These players all recognized that they are better men for the lessons they learned playing the game.
Curtis Martin, in particular gave an incredible speech. I hope you get to read it. Here is a link.