Sometimes You Just Have to Play Football
I started my career at Blue Ridge School (BRS) in St. George, VA. A boarding school wrapped tightly by Appalachian mountain, BRS gave me my first opportunity to learn about what it takes to be a teacher. Most boarding schools require its personnel to teach, coach, and participate in the residential program. BRS was no different. One of the first – and greatest – lessons I learned about education came on the football field, as a coach.
I learned my lesson during our rivalry game with St. Anne’s Bellfield (STAB), although I don’t think they considered us much of a rival (we were underdogs by a large margin). It was my second year and I had been named defensive coordinator for the season. My approach to teaching defense was to have my boys memorize the schemes, get to a spot, and then react to the offense. We were a decent defense that year, but I didn’t really know how to improve us. The players knew my schemes, my calls, yet there was something missing. I’ll call it comfortability. The defense ran like a machine, not individuals making independent decisions.
Against all odds, we found ourselves up by five in the fourth quarter with about two minutes to play. STAB was threatening from our 35-yard line. My defense had bent on the drive, but finally held them to a desperate 4th and 12. We were going to win. You could feel it. I called “King” coverage, which was my call for Cover-3 (i.e. three defenders drop back like safeties to make sure no receivers came open near or after that first-down mark). It’s a safe call in a situation like the one we were in.
The QB snapped the ball, pivoted right, and tossed it to a sweeping running back. You don’t run sweeps in this type of situation…it was a trick play. We coaches could see it develop, like the players were in slow motion. Their tight end slipped past our middle safety, who had bitten on the run, and was wide open in the middle of the field. My two cornerbacks, though, were in great positions. One was guarding a man in his zone, but no receivers were anywhere near the other cornerback. He could have easily run down the slower tight end, covered him, and made sure he didn’t catch the pass.
But he didn’t. He stayed on his third of the field just like I coached him to do. You see, in Cover-3 each safety is responsible for a third of the field and is coached that no receivers can get behind them in their respective third. I had told him countless times – drilled it into him – never to leave his third of the field, his zone. Usually, that’s correct. He shouldn’t ever leave his responsibility. But it’s really only correct when the other ten players on the field have done their jobs effectively. And as I said, my middle safety had bitten on the run.
The STAB running back set his feet, threw a perfect ball, and the tight end caught it and ran in for the touchdown. We lost the game.
I was exasperated. It was an intense moment. So close to victory and then to lose on a mistake like that. When Ben (not his name) ran to the sidelines, I was there to greet him.
“What happened, Ben! Why didn’t you cover him?”
“Coach, you told me never to leave my zone. He wasn’t in my zone!”
“But, Ben,” I pleaded, “sometimes you just have to play football.”
And that’s when it hit me. I had not spent enough time teaching him how to play football: how to adjust to other players’ mistakes, how to see the whole field, or how to use his good judgment to help the team win. No, instead, I spent the majority of practice making him memorize schemes. I kept him in his narrow bubble and made him play the game as if he were an X or an O. As I reflect back on it now, it was probably a control issue: if I allow him to use his judgment, he might make the wrong decision and fail. And then the team might fail. And then I would look like a failure. My goal was perfection; it should have been empowerment.
More than ever, students must graduate prepared to navigate the obstacles, accelerations, and shifts the 21st-century world will throw in their paths. And the only way to prepare them for that environment is to empower them to be autonomous, curious, and tenacious, attributes best developed in schools where the focus is on the application of knowledge, not just knowledge itself. Any kid with an XBOX and a copy of Madden 17 knows what a Cover-3 defense is. Information is now ubiquitous. It takes good coaches and teachers to show what can be done with that knowledge, especially when the opponent’s tight end is wide open in the end zone.
I didn’t do right by Ben, but now my players take part in the process of defensive scheming. They are given the power to change the scheme based on what the offense shows. They participate in halftime “adjustment” meetings. When they fail, they know why they failed and can explain it to me. They self-correct. I am there to provide organization and leadership and act as a mentor who shares ideas, experience, and best practices. In short, I am now focused on giving them the tools to “just play football.”