I loved coaching kids. In all I think it was about 25 teams over a 20-year span, primarily football and basketball in both Colorado and Wyoming.
It wasn’t completely altruistic in giving back to the communities who took me in as one of their own. The joy of building something from nothing, watching someone’s eyes light up when they learn and overcoming adversity as a team is about as fun as it gets. I was thanked a bunch for volunteering my time for free, yet I’m still grateful for the vast majority of those moments.
Several of the kids I coached ended up in college athletics and one made it to the National Football League – but there is catch, I coached him in hoops, not on the gridiron. He was a force of nature, no amount of coaching credit could have blocked his path. That and no could ever block him one on one.
I think I can also blame my own little league experiences. I was fortunate to grow up in an era before kids had to start specializing at five years old. I didn’t have to pick one sport to play all year long. I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track and cross country, intramural volleyball, softball, flag football, wrestling, golf lessons as a teen and a forced assignment to a swim team to learn how to swim.
I was always competitive, and a will to win without a lot of natural, speed, size or agility. Slow and small are a bad combination for my very favorite sport of football. Lucky me, I was in a very small town and with only 14-15 kids on the roster, I had the opportunity to play nearly every play at just about every position in two seasons. And the league we were in was overwhelmingly unfair, as most of the teams we played had at least two times as many kids, it was often three times the size of our roster.
League play become a fascinating baptism of fire, getting run over by bigger, faster kids on a routine basis. The cool part was, our little crew never surrendered. We would find ways to score. We had to get creative to make some plays. I learned quite a bit about myself and life overall facing such odds and two losing seasons.
The happy memories from those lopsided losses made my initial decision to coach pretty easy. Those memories and my five year run of youth football ended my sophomore year in high school. I had moved to a much bigger football town. That size and speed thing caught up with me the day I looked over the depth chart, five name deep at each position and I wasn’t on the list.
Those who recall the youthful me, whining was something I was also very good at. I loudly lamented missing the gridiron, and one of my pals told me to go help his dad’s little league team as an assistant coach. So I did. And it was a blast.
So I did it again. After a couple years of military active duty service kept me away from the fields, I returned as a head coach or as a co-head coach with that same pal, Steve, who gave me the gentle shove into coaching. We developed a pretty good two-coach system where I mostly led the defense and he the offense, with each of us offering help to the other with plays and formations that didn’t work for us.
Our first couple years reminded me a lot of my own little league days. We had small, but brave teams that got run over a lot. Great kids, great times, just not enough experience or talent – sidelines included.
We also made some team policies that the kids really seemed to appreciate. Every kid, regardless of skill had a starting position. With a roster of 16-20 kids it was easy to set up, and every player had a stake in the fate of each game. It wasn’t always easy to find a spot for everyone, we had some players who felt like they had better things to do.
Kind of like one of my all time favorites, The Butterfly Kid. As all things placed on the Internet seem to be on here forever, I’ll leave out his real name, in case he doesn’t like the designation.
Practice started in August with summer in full swing, and as such, there can be distractions. In the middle of an intense tackling drill, a voice chimed in over the sound of crunching shoulder pads and helmets.
“Hey, look coach, a butterfly!”
And he was right, there was an awesome looking butterfly right there, and the team stopped to observe for a brief moment. Coach Steve diplomaticaly agreed with the observation and it certainly wasn’t an offense worthy of taking a lap. We just knew at that moment we were going to have a problem finding our happy go lucky Butterfly Kid a starting position.
It was our best team so far too. We had a great running back, a decent line, and we did a nice job of adapting the Ace back offense of the Washington Redskins of the time, a system they built around John Riggins, for those hardcore fans in the audience.
Ultimately, we found a spot for our Butterfly Kid on defense. We placed him at the cornerback spot. In a run first league, there were not a ton of passes for him to cover, but he loved the position. He asked questions. He asked us if he was in the right place at the right time. He was learning faster than we realized.
Of course we had rivals in our league. In particular, there was another coaching tandem who considered me and Steve far too young to be coaching football. This was my third season. I was 21-years old at the time, and of course, I still knew everything. So did Steve at that same age. Those old dudes can go screw themselves was our unified response to their criticism.
Then they absolutely schooled us and thrashed us in league play. They noticed our weaknesses in the secondary and passed for a couple scores on the way to handing us our worst loss of the season. Maybe the old dudes were on to something.
We got better. We recovered. The kids were resilient. And we saw our rivals once again in the semi-finals of the playoffs. Normally, we simply wanted our kids to play their best and whatever happened, happened. This was really the first time we wanted to thump somebody. We did our homework, we adjusted our game plan and it was an amazingly competitive game.
Late in the game, holding on to a precarious lead, our foes looked once more to the sky with their passing game and began driving down the field. In a tense moment, in the key play of our season, a little kid of ours intercepted the ball, ran it back ten yards and sealed our victory and a berth in the championship game.
Crooked helmet and all, we could see his smile from thirty yards away. The Butterfly Kid saved the day. And it was the same smile that discovered that butterfly, but watching how happy he was to contribute to the win is worth it all and still makes my heart swell to this day.
Ultimately, if a coach is doing it right, it is for those moments when kids feel good about learning and doing something cool. In a win or a loss. A good block, or a good tackle, or the glorious game winning interception from a kid who wasn’t much interested in catching a football to begin the season.
We didn’t coach for the appreciation, although it was always nice to run into players years later to discover we made a positive impact on their lives. Ego is always in play, so we did enjoy winning more than losing, but it was really for the kids who had the most to learn and wanted to play the game.
As it turns out, every player should have a starting spot, because every roster potentially has a big hearted Butterfly Kid waiting in the wings.