I went to see “When the Game Stands Tall,” the “football movie” as I called it, when I purchased my ticket from the woman at the box office. Though pigskins, helmets and touchdowns frame the narrative, that movie is about far more than football.
The film, based on a true story, follows one of the most successful high school football programs in the country through winning streaks and tough losses on the field, but it places the sport within the context of personal growth. It’s a story of struggle, maturity, faith, loss and the realities that face our youth in their formative years. It’s a story of high school boys learning about their place in the world. And it’s a story of a coach who spends just as much energy on character development as he does running plays.
I know one of those types of coaches.
His name is Coach J. and he is the head football coach at the high school where I work. Coach J. knows what it means to work hard on the field. He also knows what it means to help these boys become responsible young men.
Our high school is not like the one where I grew up. Our kids see more tragedy, loss and brokenness in their everyday than I may ever see in my entire life. Their struggle is palpable in the classroom and on the field; their resilience unmatched. Every single day our kids face issues of economic hardship and difficult family dynamics, not to mention racism, stereotyping and cultural biases. They face a defined perception of who they are and who they can become precisely because of where they grew up.
Coach J. is about changing that.
He sets clear expectations and expects greatness from his players. He also works with them on far more than tackles and strength training. He is building a brotherhood, a community, and a network of support for kids who may not receive it elsewhere. He talks to them openly about the choices they make and how those choices will affect them moving forward. Like the coach in the movie, he spends just as much energy on character development as he does running plays.
High school sports can be about a lot of things. It can be about winning games and media coverage. It can be about egos and MVPs. It can be about competition, glory and gloating.
Or it can be about shepherding the next generation through the tough realities so they can go out and make a difference in their communities.
As educators, we have the unique opportunity to be involved in our students’ lives for a specific amount of time. We can choose to be passively involved, to do the minimum, to teach them what they need to know to pass the tests and move on to the next level.
Or we can choose to be actively involved, to give them all we’ve got for the days, months and years we have with them. We can choose to share some of our stories in hopes that it might touch their hearts. We can invest our time and energy in the growth of our students. We can talk to them about responsibility, love, faith and growing up.
During the movie credits, the real-life De La Salle football coach Bob Ladouceur says the following to his players:
“Growing up is painful. It’s not easy. But that’s what our program is about in case you haven’t figured it out. It ain’t about the football. It ain’t about scoring touchdowns. It ain’t about the win streak. It’s about moving you in a direction that will assist you and help you grow up. So that you can take your place out in the world and out in society and out in our community, you can be depended on.”
Coach Ladouceur is about transformative education. Coach J. is about transformative education. I am about transformative education. We have the unique opportunity to pray for and work toward transformative education in all of our schools with all of our students. We can demonstrate and encourage virtue in the classroom, on the field and in life beyond the school day. We can help our students prepare to take their place in the world.
Just as the “football movie” isn’t just about football, so too our teaching isn’t just about the classroom. It’s about the opportunity to participate in the life of another in an exceptional and transformative capacity.