It had all the elements: action, drama, suspense, conflict, emotional range, heroes, villains, innocent bystanders, and a moral woven throughout. I'm thinkin' God's a pretty good playwright and somebody had it close to dead-on when they said that "All the world's a stage and the men and women merely players."
Field #1 of the Under Armor American Youth Football National Championships.
Game 2 of the series. The semi-finals.
It is a sunny, breezy, beautiful day. The grass is green, families are cheering, the air is filled with the sounds of pads colliding and whistles blowing.
The Cast of Characters:
Kissimmee Kowboys - the long-shot underdogs. They had not made the playoffs in their regional division, but won a wild-card slot at these championship games. It was not known that they would play until 3 days prior to the start of the championships. Every other team has been playing non-stop; our heroes turned in their gear four weeks ago and squeezed in 2 hours of practice prior to their first championship game (which they won against an unbeaten team!). Oh, and did we mention our team has *1* ninth grader (the rest are 8th grade) and made the wild card slot in the ninth grade division?
Osceola Panthers - the odds-on favorites and cross-county rivals of the Kowboys. They made (and won) the regional playoffs, thereby winning a seat in the National games. This team is known for dirty play, punching and kicking when in a pile-up, and deliberately injuring opponents' players that pose a threat. Oh, and did we mention that the coach was recently fired and there was much debate over their eligibility because it was found that they played with 10th- and 11th-graders on their team during the regular season?
Coach Kenny King - deserving of his last name. True follower of Jesus Christ, ex-NFL Europe player, gentleman, teacher...coach.
Both teams arrive at the field and begin their warm-ups. Coach King begins the Kowboys' practice with prayer, encouragement, and a call to clean play. Our cast of characters take the field, toss the coin, and begin play.
Within the first two series, the Panthers live up to their reputation even without the former coach to egg them on. Two of the Kowboys' offensive players wind up on the sidelines, doubled over in pain due to having cleats placed forcefully and effectively in tender locations under the obscuring cover of a pile-up. Tempers already begin to flare as obscenities are thrown and referees ignore the violation. The Kowboys begin to give in to the anger and miss blocks, allowing turnovers and giving the offending Panthers the opportunity to score.
The Panthers score the first touchdown of the game on their second possession. Immediately, the Kowboys drop their heads, anger gives way to discouragement, and they begin to give up. More missed blocks, an interception at the 4 yard line...emotion-driven mistakes lead to further Panther scores. Some of the Kowboys begin to blame teammates; infighting erupts. The center (my own big guy) takes a tackle that injures his leg, resulting in the coach removing him from play and replacing him with the back-up who has not practiced at center in months. More frustration and infighting on the offensive line ensues.
By half-time, Coach Kenny King has had it with the breakdown on his team. It isn't the mistakes that bother him; it's the infighting. He's fought long and hard to make these boys into a team and *will not* tolerate ugliness, blame, disrespect, or attitude on his team. He will not permit his boys to lower themselves to dirty play. As they come off the field at the half, two players begin to make motions of tossing their helmets - he stops them. No temper tantrums on his team. As others on the team begin to cast blame, he stops them as well...they talk back. Not to this coach. The boys are gathered on the bleachers. He lays it on the line for them: "The rules allow me to play with 7 players. Do I still have 7 men willing to play football? I'm not going to put up with quitting or attitude. If you want to play, step across this line, but I'm not going to have any more attitude at all. Move, gentlemen, but only if you mean it." Most of the team rallies to their coach's call...
Two remain sullenly seated. The quarterback and the receiver who is able to catch anything, anywhere, at any time. They think they're invaluable. Coach doesn't really mean what he says. He needs us, but the rest of the team sucks. (the very word used by the receiver about his teammates...to the coach... in front of his teammates.) Sadly, firmly, the coach points to the two and orders them to take off their pads and helmets; they're done. Shock. Disbelief. "Now, gentlemen." And he turns to rally the boys who want to be there; who are willing to dig in and play it out; who want to show character against the odds and maintain integrity on the field in the face of the opponent's obvious lack thereof. The boys who want to succeed as men.
One of the two players continues his ranting, his attitude, throwing his gear to the ground and stomping off. The other removes his gear but desperately wants to be on that field. He approaches Coach King. Please, a second chance? "If you can man up and admit to what you've done wrong and accept your team's forgiveness, you can come back out." NO! That's too much. To stand in front of them...? NO...walks off...wanders around... reconsiders... returns... apologizes... is welcomed back onto the field. In limited capacity, to be sure; sharing his role now with the one who has played back-up all season. But still in the game. And with much learned. A hard lesson in respect, responsibility, and redemption. And I'm sure it will stick with him - and his teammates - longer than the outcome of the game.
The second half continues much as the first: cheap shots by the Panthers, breakdowns in the game of the Kowboys who are playing down one receiver and one starting center, considerable mental distractions, and more scoring by the Panthers. But, in the midst of it all, the Kowboys that remain choose to encourage one another, to back each other up, to play positions they aren't used to playing because the team needs them there. And although they lost the game, they gained so much as young men. They learned that integrity and character are shown not in how you accept a victory but in how you handle a defeat. That attitude is not dependent on circumstance. And one last lesson that cut to my heart...Coach King taught us parents, as well.
In the post-game huddle, all of the above was recapped. Character. Integrity. Manliness. Respect. Fair play. Encouragement. Building up rather than tearing down. Accountability. "And, don't you boys worry. I'm still going to have a talk with ________ (the player that walked out)." *insert mutter from co-coach* Sharp turn of Coach King's head. Quick but obvious consideration followed by the following, "Enough. I don't want to hear another word about him. Don't any of you boys call him. Don't get on him in school. I'm going to talk to him because it's between him and me. And *I'm* going to do it because, this is important boys; are you listening? HE NEEDS TO BE BUILT BACK UP, TOO. HE DOESN'T NEED TO BE TORN DOWN FARTHER THAN HE ALREADY IS. YOU LET ME DO MY JOB AND BUILD HIM BACK UP."
Oh, my. He walked out on you. He would've spat on you if he dared. He let you down. His attitude stunk. He was hateful and ugly to the rest of your boys that you protect like a mama bear...but *he's* one of your boys, too. And you love him enough to see past what he's acting like to what he needs. Redemption in action. Thank you, coach. Thanks for being way more than a football teacher. Thanks for reminding me of what real love for my own kids looks like. Thanks for a great season, a positive attitude, and a living example of the character of Christ.
It is about time for an update!
4 years ago