It was sophomore football, the entry level rung of athletics at Washington High School. Three feeder junior highs thrown together to meld together as a team in the short pure hell period of three-a-day practices in the sweltering Kansas August heat. In reality, what that entailed was the two poor sophomore football coaches had to try and piece together a starting 11 from a group that came in with three starting quarterbacks, three starting centers, there’s tailbacks, three nose guards.
Well, you get the picture. It was almost like three different teams squabbling every day to be the “one” on the field. To make matters worse, the new head sophomore football coach just happened to be my junior high coach, Coach P. So naturally, every starting position won by an Eisenhower Jr. High player was favoritism and cronyism at it highest.
It was very frustrating and at height of our early season misery, we lost our opening game. The third string QB, a Japanese American kid, lost his temper in practice and stated yelling at the coaches accusing them of discrimination. He said they didn’t like him because he was Japanese. Coach P made us all run and run and run and run for lack of a better spur of the moment solution to that accusation.
Coach P had a temper. Once in Jr. High, he blew up at our lack of focus and execution and kicked us off the practice field. We ran toward the school locker room like convicts on a jailbreak. Our football field was inside the school’s track and when the rambling herd was mere yards away from the track, Coach P screamed, “And don’t you dare step on MY track!”
Forty-some kids in full football gear came to a screeching halt. We froze with fear. What were we supposed to do? Nobody dared look back to Coach P (who was probably back there laughing his ass off at us idiots). Finally, after what seemed an eternity, one of the faster running backs at the front of the group slipped out of his cleats and tip-toed across the track. One by one, we followed suit and when everyone has crossed over and, after Coach P had time to quit laughing enough to yell, he screamed, “I said get off my field!”
Forty-some boys sprinted across campus in stocking feet approaching the locker room at near world record speeds.
Our second game that sophomore year was against Shawnee Mission South at their practice field, which was next door to their expansive district football stadium and track. We fell apart on the first half. Coach P silently walked the team over to the stands of the district football stadium for halftime. The team began to sit on the lower level and Coach goes on a rant. “You don’t deserve to sit on the front row. To the top. Now!”
We marched way up to the cheap seats and sat down. Coach P lets it fly. I don’t remember much of what he said because I avoided potential eye contact by watching normal, happy people walk and jog around the stadium track. Coach pointed to an old man jogging on the track and shouted, “Now there’s somebody who knows the value of hard work. You boys need to take a lesson from him.”
Surprisingly, the old man on the track stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and ran in the opposite direction never passing our section of stands again.
Shortly thereafter, when he’d scared most of the bystanders on the track away, I heard him say something that has stuck with me for years. He talked of teamwork. He talked of common goals and the value of putting the team in front of any individual. His final words were most telling. “Boys, I don’t care if you are Chineese, Japanese or Turpentine-ese, I am going to coach you equally and with all my energy. But, I promise you, I will always start the kids who work the hardest and earn their spots.”
He turned and walked away. We continued to get our butts kicked in the second half, though we did play more like a team. The third string QB quit the next day and with his departure many of our squabbles and internal problems left as well. We probably finished around .500 for the season, I really can’t remember. But I do remember having fun the rest of the season and becoming good friends with former junior high rivals.
I always carried a little bit of Coach P around with me in my coaching career. Coach everyone who walks through your locker room door to the best of your ability, every day. Because…
“I don’t care if you’re Chinese, Japanese or Turpentine-ese…”
I’m going to coach you.