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As Long as We Remember...

October 25, 2005

Playing With Heart

Edward Lulie III

If you believe that everything in football is all about winning and losing then read no further. This column is about my experience with my developmental "B" team and our season so far.

It is a tale of missed opportunities and unexpected successes. As a coach I have been tested in ways I never imagined. Humility is not hard to come by when you have not won a game.

It has been a tough season for my team. We are composed of 9, 10 and 11 year olds (and one 12 year old) players. We are the Middletown Knights Junior Varsity B Team and we play in the CCFL (Carroll County Football League).

We have 18 players ranging in weight from 60 pounds to 103 pounds (one player is out until playoffs with a fractured wrist, so we only have 17 able to play). Most teams that we have faced had from 23 to 33 players and of those several teams had players that just got in under the 125-pound weight limit.

So we had times when our players of 60-80 pounds were up against players of 120 pounds. Often there has been a huge size disparity; literally some of our players are half the weight of players they match up against.

Parents and observers of our games have been sympathetic when we have lost. They just looked at the size and numbers of our opponents and were not at all surprised when we lost. What has surprised them was that our players, fully aware of the odds, never quit or stopped playing.

The B team is a new idea this year at Middletown. It is designed to be composed only of players that would not have gotten much, if any, playing time on the regular MVAA (Middletown Valley Athletic Association) junior varsity and pony teams.

That was the concept for our team that our players would improve their skills and get hands on experience instead of just watching each week from the sidelines. In that respect this experiment has been a success; our players are all much better than when we first assembled as a team for the first time back in August.

We have not won a game and have lost by wide margins; except for one game. That exception came in a game versus Linganore, a team of roughly our size (they had 1 fewer player dressed to play) and numbers.

We scored our first touchdown against them and shut them out for 39 minutes and 46 seconds. In the last 14 seconds of the game, Linganore, with the clock running out, completed their only pass of the day to tie us. We stopped their conversion and went to overtime where we lost (again on a 4th down play).

It was an exciting game leaving us convinced that had we faced teams of roughly equal size and numbers that we would have done well against them. Our players know that each week the odds are stacked against us, but they suit up and play as hard as they can. It may be that we lose, but it is not for want of character or effort.

We probably will not win a game this year; the remaining games are all against teams that are either unbeaten or have already beaten us once.

Success for us comes in the form of progress at small things. Executing a play properly, making a tackle or gaining a first down. We have had very few penalties, something the Baltimore Ravens might envy.

Still it is always a learning experience; there is a lot of work yet to do. Improving one's skills at football is an ongoing process that continues as long as players play the game, even when they reach the level of the NFL.

It is an amazing thing to see kids at age 9 and 10 who are growing so fast. Physical tasks that were difficult or impossible for them to do at the beginning of August are often routine by late September.

It is hard to get kids at that age to focus and work when the wide world beckons them to just play. The PS2 and Xbox are common distractions from house and homework. That makes it more impressive that 18 kids decided to forgo the couch and television to spend days working hard outside in all kinds of weather.

Many kids never even try to play team sports. For every Ray Lewis and Jerry Rice there are dozens of players who might have been just as gifted but never even tried to play. That is something it is hard to understand; how much lost potential there is because people just never even tried.

Without question one of the major benefits of playing football comes from learning the self discipline as well as the physical and mental development you gain. That sense of pride and accomplishment is important.

That is why I believe that we need to have more fields available to play on and provide more community support for team sports. It is an expense and effort that provides huge returns in the lives of players and helps to make communities strong and vibrant.

Much of the art of coaching is learning what your players can do and where they should be fitting in on your team. Many times you have weaknesses at positions and have to play kids there instead of elsewhere because you have no choice.

Coaches with more than enough players have another difficult task: who do you play and who do you bench? Only on my team that problem hasn't arisen. Some games we have had just 14 players able to play. A team needs to have 11 players on the field for offense and for defense; only having 3 extra players means that everyone has to play - a lot!

As a team member you learn that you are being counted on by your team-mates. That is an important lesson to learn at any age but especially when you are just 10 or 11 years old.

The greatest compliment given to me as a coach (and as a coach with no wins you do not get many compliments) came from a referee who told me that he was very impressed by how much our team had improved from the first game he'd officiated to the next one. That we would lose was dictated by the disparity in size and numbers; but that we had something that most high school and college coaches desperately want to have in their own teams - "heart."

Are my kids unhappy at having no wins?

Well let me put it like this; they know we nearly won the only game that was against a team roughly our size and numbers. The other games they remember making plays against kids larger, faster and stronger.

They played teams where we really had no chance at all and took pride in the fact they never once quit or said "it's not fair" or "that it's, too much to ask.

I am very proud of them.

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