***This post is written as a message to the Fairmont Football team of 2018. It is my way of organizing my thoughts on this past season. I hope my message and experience this past season reinforces why we (as coaches) really, truly coach (and it’s not about State Titles)***
On Saturday, November 24, 2018, my second season as an offensive coordinator officially came to an end. Fortunately for myself, our team, and our community, that end was in the state championship game for Class 3A in the state of Minnesota. There aren’t many “good ways” to end a season; but barring a state championship, this may be the next best thing. Coaching in a state championship game had always been beyond my wildest dreams. The community support, the police and fire department escort out of town, the pageantry of the state tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium, the media attention, and the opportunity to play for a state championship had always seemed too good to be true. It seemed like only a fantasy. That is, until it became a reality on the backs of an outstanding group of young men and the support of an outstanding community.
Now, a few days after the season has ended, I am beginning to reflect on the meaning of this entire experience. I had always read about other’s journey to success and all of them had reflections that were impactful to me because it allowed me to visualize myself in the same situation. It allowed me to learn from others’ experiences and to model some of their traits and behaviors that made them successful. I feel it only fair that I do the same, but with a different viewpoint. That viewpoint is from the perspective of the “almost’; the perspective of the runner-up.
There was nothing extraordinary about the players we had or the schemes we had in place. There were more talented teams to have come through Fairmont and there will be more talented teams to come in the future. Heck, there were more talented teams on our schedule, but none of that mattered. You don’t need extraordinary players and schemes to achieve extraordinary things. All that mattered was us. What made us special was also what made us ordinary. Our kids worked hard at every practice, bonded and looked out for one another outside of team activities, genuinely enjoyed one another’s company, were fundamentally strong in many aspects, and were coachable to a fault. These are characteristics of many teams, but they are the characteristics that are the most important. Our players were able to do them extraordinarily well, and that’s what made them special. They took the little things (such as building up a player after a bad day or congratulating a teammate after an accomplishment) and made them big. This elevated our team to heights that were previously locked to them.
Our team was not perfect. We entered the season with a lot of personalities and a lack of experience. We knew we had talent, but we wondered how it’d all mesh together. A loss in the second week of the season would challenge our team with adversity, and a near loss experience in the middle of a season pushed us to the brink of panic. However, these experiences provided learning opportunities for our players and it galvanized them as a team. This toughness and togetherness molded the team into a unit that was now more capable of achieving success than the team we entered the season with. The crazy thing was: nothing about them had changed. They still had been working hard in practice, still had been coachable, and still enjoyed each other’s company. The only thing that had changed was their experience and their unity. Adversity was the bonding force that served as a catalyst for our team’s evolution.
I believe that any successful team must go through that experience at some point in a season. Adversity provides opportunities for growth and self-examination and from that, growth occurs. All of us, as coaches, would love our players to experience an undefeated season with very few road bumps along the way. However, I’d argue that we should welcome these challenges. All great teams do! Search for the adversity, see the challenge as an opportunity for growth, and then improve upon your mistakes. That’s learning; that’s life; and that’s a transferable skill all players can take with them after the final whistle has sounded.
Winning isn’t everything. I know that sounds like an noncompetitive response to losing, but there is so much truth to it. Winning the state championship is clearly the goal that most team’s share when they begin a season for their respective sports, but only one team can walk away with the hardware. That leaves everyone else with what? It leaves them with experiences and memories, both of which, are what really matters in high school athletics anyway. I was told when I got into teaching that students will rarely remember what you taught them, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. The same can be applied to athletics and our team. Our players will probably forget the plays, schemes, scores and box scores of their games, but they’ll never forget the memories, relationships, and experiences they shared with their teammates. Those things are more important than any medal, any hardware, or any banner hanging in a school gymnasium. Playing (and yes losing) in the state championship has given our players this great opportunity. They’ve got to experience so much, create so many memories, and enjoy the chase of a championship run. These are things they will get to keep with them, the hardware remains secondary in importance.
Unity is everything. The support a team needs to make it to a championship game goes beyond the support structures that have always been in place in football programs across the nation. It includes the support of parents, families, community members, school officials, coaches, mentors, businesses in town, and so much more. At Fairmont, this support was (and always has been) second-to-none. The galvanizing force that this support provided for our players was obvious. From the sea of Red and White in the stands, to the thunderous cheers throughout the game, our fans provided the boost that our players needed to get through the struggles of a game. It generated a sense of pride in these players who were receiving validation and recognition for their efforts by the people who meant the most to them. Teams need this support to make it to the level that we were fortunate enough to achieve. We’re extremely fortunate to have the support that we did and I can only imagine that this support was replicated and present in the school’s who were crowned champions and those who fell just short. However, this support must be cultivated. It involves giving the support system a chance to interact with the program and feel invested in its success in whatever capacity possible. It also includes extending gratitude and recognition to all who have lent their support to the success of the team. To the community of Fairmont: Thank you! You were our heartbeat and we are forever grateful for what you’ve done to support our players and program.
I know we fell short of reaching the goal we set for ourselves as a team, but I feel what we’ve gained in the process will greatly outweigh the heartache of defeat. So much credit is deserved to our opponent Rochester Lourdes. They were so well coached, prepared, and fundamentally sound. Their players were phenomenal athletes and executed to near perfection. They deserved the championship and they earned it with their own efforts, their own support, and their own unity. Congratulations to them, their coaching staff, and their community!
Approaching a team after a difficult defeat is never easy, but our players were extremely resilient. They were positive, reflective, and appreciative of the journey they had just completed. There was definitely sadness, but that was tied to the realization that this team would never be the same again. That same sadness was shared by the coaching staff who had to say their goodbyes to a senior class that had given so much to a community and program over the past four years.
For me, it was unique experience. I was fortunate enough to coach the senior class as freshman, all the way until their senior seasons. I came in as a freshman coach and left as their offensive coordinator. These were my guys. To be separated from them now hurts, but the memories we’ve created will stay with us long after the sting of defeat has subsided. This is the difficulty of coaching high school athletics, but it’s also what makes it so special. Some of these kids will never play football again, EVER. That is a sobering and scary thought for some of our players. Football provided structure for players who needed it and it provided a support system for players who had none outside of it. Having that ripped away from you is tough, but that’s why it is important to slow down and enjoy the experience as it is happening and appreciate it. This only reinforces the importance of coaches letting players know they appreciate them, love them, and care for them; because once it is all over, you’ll want your players feeling they belonged.
This group of seniors went from a 1-7 football team as Freshman to an 11-2 football team as seniors. I got to coach them in 40 games and, as cliche as it sounds, I saw progress in every single game. Progress as young men. Progress as students. Progress as future husbands, fathers, and community members. Having no children of my own, seeing these kids grow in the manner that they did gave me a sense of parental pride. I only hope that some day, I am blessed with a son or daughter who possesses the work ethic, toughness, kindness, and patience that these seniors had.
Now it’s time to move on. Now it’s time to move forward. The rest of the state of Minnesota is not going to feel sorry for the Fairmont football program and nor should they. There is work left to be done, but it’s important to take a moment and reflect on where we have been and where we hope to go. As the book closes on one season, another opens and begins; but as we look back at the book of the Fairmont Cardinals from 2018, I hope the memories and the sense of accomplishment never fade. What we did was special and I, for one, am one proud coach. Although the sting of a loss in the state championship will always linger, we must ask ourselves: how are we going to respond and what can be learned from this experience? A great opportunity has been presented to all of us. Let’s not waste this loss and the impact it can have our growth and learning in football and in life.