My Ball!

Football has been on my mind lately. I know what you’re thinking, “Stop the presses! Hays never thinks about sports.” The general consensus has always been, even in the days before I coached the game, that a certain percentage of my total brain function is dedicated to football thought 24/7/365. This is different, though.

My latest football obsession has been triggered by a book (Yes, I said a book.). I’ve been reading (and listening) to Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the misconception of the underdog called DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS. Gladwell is one of my favorite intellects currently walking this fine planet. Forget the grey-haired, elderly, beer-sipping character from a TV commercial, Malcolm Gladwell may truly be The Most Interesting Man In The World.

Many of the patterns and habit of underdogs—which, by the way, lead to more successes than expected—outlined in the book remind me of the things I learned while coaching. I’ll attempt to touch on some of these learned lessons over the next months on the blog. One of the most important lessons learned was this intricately simplistic, but incredibly effective, definition of the game of football. The “MY BALL!” philosophy of Coach Paul Lane.

In my town, we are perennial underdogs. We have the collective genetics of a lower middleweight wrestler. We aren’t big, we aren’t particularly fast, we aren’t incredibly naturally talented, but we are who we are. If you were to line our Clay Center boy’s teams up before the game at the 50-yard line against the opponent and take a vote on who’ll win from physical appearance only, we’d lose that vote in a landslide 95 times out of 100.

We are who we are.

Being what and who we naturally are, we have to approach things from a non-conventional direction in order to develop into a successful team. We have to think outside the proverbial box because we don’t have the natural athleticism that fits nicely into that box. I don’t mean to be mean-spirited because I loved coaching this tough-minded, hard-working population of kids. It is just the harsh reality—we have to develop competitive teams, not inherit competitive teams.

Coach Lane’s number one teaching point for the Tiger Defense consisted of only two words, MY BALL!. When the opponent had the ball, our job was to physically take our ball back, either by force or by making the opponent punt the ball back to us in three plays. Our goal was to be selfish by taking our ball back whenever the opponent happened to gain possession of it—and take it from them ASAP.

A beautifully simple, yet effective definition of the game that 99.9% of our teenage boys were able to grasp. They could “get it”. Football went from this apparently confusing game of rules and playbooks, and techniques to something they could wrap their young minds around. It’s all about MY BALL.

  • Get it back when we don’t have it.
  • Take care of it when we have it and move it to our special piece of prime real estate at the opposite end of the field as many times as possible.

With this simple mental framework in place, we could teach our kids their jobs and they could understand why they had to do that job. The team needed them to do their job in order for us to get Coach Lane his ball back.


“MY BALL!” made me rethink the game of football and more importantly, rethink how I studied and taught the game of football. Two simple words, one simple philosophy that helped our underdogs as they worked to become successful. David beats Goliath playing the game David’s way and not Goliath’s way.

Until next time.


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Going Pro

I’ve had a lot of my athletes go pro. Seriously, look it up. It’s absolutely true.

It’s just that none of them have gone pro playing sports.

They are professionals, nonetheless.

  • Farmers
  • Ranchers
  • Teachers
  • Soldiers
  • Engineers
  • Park rangers
  • Firemen
  • Pilots
  • EMT’s
  • Doctors
  • Coaches
  • Landscapers
  • Linemen
  • Mechanics
  • Recreation specialists
  • Nurses
  • Construction workers
  • Fence builders
  • Bankers
  • Salesmen
  • Laborers
  • Entrepreneurs

And the list goes on and on.

They are successes in their own stories.  They make me proud to have been their coach. No win, no matter how big it seemed at the time, matches the joy of observing these young men as husbands, fathers, and fine adult citizens.

I’ve coached kids who were (are) borderline brilliant. I’ve coached kids who had many adults in their teenage lives who thought they were borderline criminals. Except for a few rare outliers, I liked them all. Except for a few outliers, I believed in them and believed ALL of them would grow up (eventually) to become fine adults. They have.

Sports are great. Enjoy them while you still have the opportunity to participate. Compete within yourself to be the best you that you can be. But, please, please, please, never forget sports are a first step in your developing life, not the last step.

It gets better from here. I know this may be hard to believe, but it’s true.

Trust me on this one, kids.


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Autumnal Equinox: Beware the Autumn People

Welcome to the Autumnal Equinox. We have turned the corner, left summer behind, and on the horizon looms Winter. In celebration of this fine season, which brings us football, school, the World Series, changing leaves, and Halloween, here is one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Happy Autumn!


“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond.

Where do they come from?

The dust.

Where do they go?

The grave.

Does blood stir their veins?

No: the night wind.

What ticks in their head?

The worm.

What speaks from their mouth?

The toad.

What sees from their eye?

The snake.

What hears with their ear?

The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles—breaks.

Such are the autumn people.

Beware of them.”



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The Youth Sports Conundrum

Sometimes I speak my sports mind.

Sometimes I tell people the “truth” on sports as I see it.

Sometimes this gets me in trouble.

Recently, I was asked at our youth baseball association meeting if I was excited as a former high school level coach to see all these local kids playing youth club baseball. I thought for a moment, looked at the floor trying to think of a politically correct way to answer this question.

I couldn’t—so I spoke the sports truth, “Yes…and NO!”

“Yes” because it’s great to see kids playing baseball, but “NO!” because I don’t think you should ever approach youth baseball for the purpose of someday having your dozen or so kids all becoming high school stars.

Eyes widened. Jaws fell open. I quickly tried to elaborate that, as I high school level coach, I’d prefer to see kids enter the high school program armed primarily with a love for the sport and the ability to throw and catch. There will be attrition. Even in the best case scenario, only about half of those dozen kids who play on a youth team will probably still be playing in their later high school days.

Kids will change, their bodies will grow and shift by the time they reach high school. If a kid has that love and passion for the game, I can teach them (or re-teach them) as they enter the high school program and mold them into the players best suited for their skill set. These kids will put the hours of hard work needed to be a solid player. They will use their love of the game to push through tough times and tough situations to get better every day.

That is what I want to see out of a youth sports program. Help kids love the sport, teach them the basic fundamentals of the sport, and give them the basic skills tool set to be successful. All the other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place with hard work and repetition.

Youth sports are not a minor league for high schools. The two bottom things on the list of priorities for a youth sports program are the emphasis on winning above development and a philosophy of making future high school stars. Most of the problems that grow out of youth sports are rooted in these two negative prioritizations. The “burnout” problem so often discussed as a major problem with youth sports most often grows out of these two philosophical approaches.

Youth sports exist to teach kids the fundamentals of a sport. Youth sports programs should teach the kids how to play the game, teach kids about the value of teamwork and the value of competition.

Above all else, youth sports need to teach kids to enjoy the sport and the opportunity to play.

Play hard and have fun!

Campbell Infield

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Football Is NOT Life: 2015

I wrote the blog post, Football is NOT Life, in 2010. I re-post it every year at the start of the season as a reminder to myself and to you. When first published, I was two years out of my bad breakup with football coaching. The obsession with coaching the sport was waning and life, my real, actual life was beginning to seep back into its position of dominance in my psyche. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it. Football coaching— coaching, in general—has a tendency to take over the way one thinks.

Everybody wants to win, it is written in the marrow of our bones. However, not everybody can win and we need to remind ourselves there are worse things in life than losing a game of football, no matter how much it hurts.

Respect the kids and respect the coaches. Parents, be your child’s biggest fan, not their biggest critic. Respect the work and effort everyone invests, no matter how disappointing the outcome is. Use games and sports to build character in our young people, not to expose poor character.

Please read this post and think about it.  If it helps, then pass it on to the next person before we adults take all the fun out of this great game.

(originally posted on September 21, 2010)


I know this may sound highly irrational and maybe even a bit hypocritical coming from me, but contrary to what the t-shirts say, FOOTBALL IS NOT LIFE!.

Football is the greatest damn game ever invented, but it is not life.  Football is intensity, competitiveness, sportsmanship, and violence, but it is not life.  Football requires immense strategy and teamwork, but it is not life.  Football provides education, drama, entertainment, and a solidarity which binds communities, campuses and fan bases throughout the nation, but it is not life.  Football is universal, it is played by presidents and paupers, genius, and idiot, big and small, aggressive and passive, rich and poor, but it is not life.  Football should not be all consuming.  Football should not be the top priority.  I know this for a fact, I have tripped and fallen down this hole before (see my story).

Football can be like a package of Oreos, both need to be consumed in moderation.  You’ve been there, you opened the package of Oreos and left it out on the counter.  Sooner, rather than later, the whole package is gone and you don’t feel so good.  But if you open that package and only take a couple of Oreos and place the package in the cupboard for a later date, they not only taste spectacular, but last and satisfy for days upon days.  Football is not life.  It should be taken in moderation and/or with a tall glass of milk, (preferably 1% or skim).

Football has it’s proper place, it has its proper perspective. Football is not the primary reason for the existence of high schools, colleges, and universities. Yes, football is important.  It is important to compete.  It is important to work hard to be the best coach or player you can be.  It is important to compete with purpose, pride, and passion.

I think Coach Paul Lane said it best with his prioritization of the sport,

“Faith, family, and football is a game we are lucky enough to play.”

Football is important to me.  But football is not life.  Let’s work to keep football in its proper perspective and place. I would hate for you to get a football belly-ache.

Unruh from scoreboard

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The Depths

Depth is underrated. The value of having quality people in your program is fairly obvious—you need good players to succeed. The number ones on the depth chart are important, but as a coach or leader of a program, one cannot ignore the value of depth and numbers.

Depth in the kids who fill the backup role and must step in when called upon when the starter goes down. Depth in the kids who stand on the sidelines on game night, seemingly for the sole purpose as a show of force in uniform.

Depth is more important than that.

Depth makes a program successful.

A program needs the kids on the third and fourth string—the kids on the low end of the depth totem pole— to make everyone better. These players are the ones who make a program stronger and a lot more fun to be a part of. The “filler” players are the ones who push the kids above them on the depth chart to get better. The challenge, the competition, and the friendly rivalry are the “magic” which makes a team shine.

I used to enjoy working with the football scout team kids in practice. It wasn’t easy for these kids to learn the opponent’s offense and defense on the fly. It was a daily struggle for them to stir up within themselves the intensity and effort to give the first and second string players a quality look in our preparations. We called ourselves the “Black Dogs”. We took pride in what we did. We learned a lot of football running all those opponents schemes and plays.

I’d challenge them to push the other players as much as possible, even if it got a little chippy at times. Honestly, I didn’t mind an occasional scuffle or melee as these mostly occurred when the third string player made a first string player look bad on a play. Oddly enough, after these incidents, the starter usually attacked their practice with renewed effort.

Everybody gets better.

Every day.

You build successful programs from the ground up. You recruit quality depth. You plant the seed of possibility within these kids when they show up at your door. You cultivate their talent with as much, or more, effort as is put into developing your number ones. You give them a sense of importance and value. Everybody sees the intricately carved and beautifully decorated top of the totem pole, but people rarely pay attention to the bottom of the totem pole, which provides the foundation. If the foundation is weak and gives way, the whole thing falls apart.

It takes a special relationship between coaches and these kids on the lower half of the depth chart. A coach needs to make these kids feel like they are an important part of the program and demand effort from them every single practice, workout, and game. These kids don’t get much attention and the attention they get is mostly negative. A classmate poking fun at them for “riding the pine”. A parent chiding them for not being a starter. It’s a tough life for a Black Dog. That’s why a coach needs to be there to encourage and develop them as players.

Every day.

Everyone gets better.

I salute the Black Dogs of the world. I salute the kids who practice hard and work to make themselves and the team better on a daily basis. Without you, a team has no depth. Without you, a team has no foundation. Without you, a program crumbles.

Have patience. Keep working hard. Make your position a better place. And never forget the light at the end of the tunnel. Your time will come.

Next time you see the players at the lower end of the depth chart, give them a high five. Pat them on the back in appreciation for their efforts and cheer them on. THEY are the keys to a successful program. As the old saying goes, “A chain is as strong as its weakest link.”

A program is built from the ground up. Talent is forged from upward pressure and challenge from below.

Everyone contributes. Every day.


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Fully Formed

I had this recurring dream about showing up to the locker room one day and meeting the principal at the coach’s office door. No, I was not in trouble so this wasn’t the usual administrative nightmare which, in all actuality, was my coaching reality. In my dream, the principal is standing at the office door to introduce me to the strapping athlete at his side, who just happened to transfer to our school. A Brian Urlacher-type. Ready-made out of the box ready to step on the field and dominate.

Fully formed.

Ready to go.

But this never happened. Sure we had our share of kids transfer in, but none of them ever was a Division I caliber athlete.

The mythology of the transfer student.

The mythology of “fully formed” is just that…a myth.

Even in the writing game, nothing starts fully formed. An idea becomes a sentence, the sentence becomes a paragraph, the paragraphs become chapters, and the chapters become a draft. The draft is chopped up and reworked, and then polished to a shine. Next, trusted people read it, suggest changes, and the whole process repeats itself until the book is fully formed.

Hard work is the magic.

Nothing is fully formed out of the box.

When I was just starting out in coaching, I used to grump and griff around that the new kids coming into the program didn’t already know the things I wanted them to know. I’d get frustrated when the kids couldn’t do the things I thought they should do.

I was an idiot.

I would grumble out loud, but Mrs. Hays would point out, “If those kids already knew everything, they wouldn’t need to pay you now, would they?”

Thanks, Mrs. Hays.

I would point a finger at the developmental level coaches and Coach Lane, who taught freshman English class, would say, “I can’t expect 8th graders to come in knowing freshman English, I need to teach them freshman English.”

That’s why he was such a good head coach and mentor.

Everyone needs work. Everyone needs coaching and teaching.

Fully formed never just walks in the door.

Done right with a developmental approach, though, and fully formed can walk out your door.

Developing athletes is a sports coach’s #1 job. It truly is why they pay us.

Developing athletes is the key to success. Make the kids who walk through your door the best they can be. Help them realize their potential and their dreams.

Send them away at the end of their time with you as  fully formed as you can make them.


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