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From the Coaches Bookshelf: Maturing Process© July 2014
Bill Courtney turned a group of at-risk teens at Manassas High School in Memphis into a tight, highly motivated football team that was the subject of the 2012 Academy Award-winning film, Undefeated. He also converted an abandoned piece of property into a $45 million dollar lumber company. Courtney has since become a consultant for PepsiCo, Nike, and Fed Ex. This excerpt is from his recently-published book, Against the Grain: A Coach’s Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family and Love.
Too many players get caught up in their own internal drama. They forget that the team must always come first.
A classic case was Zach Woods, a six-foot-one junior I coached at St. George’s.
The first time I met Zach, I wasn’t very impressed. I was coaching Manassas at the time, and on the night before the game, we had dinner at St. George’s. I thought it would be a good idea for everyone to get to know each other. As it turned out, what my players learned about Zach Woods was that he didn’t seem to have much class.
After the meal, Zach had the nerve to walk up to one of them in the entryway to the dining room and loudly proclaim, “This is what I’m going to do after I score on you tomorrow.”
Wearing his street clothes, he proceeded to execute a full backflip. I was embarrassed, for the kid and his school. This was not the time or the place for that type of showmanship. Incredibly, not a single coach took Zach aside. I thought of saying something myself, but it wasn’t my place as he wasn’t my player.
Zach Woods did not score against us the next day. My guys would not let it happen. But I would never forget his backflip.
Lo and behold, a year later, I took a job as the new defensive backs coach at St. George’s. Who was the first kid I ran into on the first day of summer workouts? Mr.Backflip, naturally.
As I watched him go through his workout routine, my view of him began to change. I saw a kid giving everything he had. He flipped tractor tires. He carried tires over his head. He ran the 100-yard dash as if he was trying to win the gold. The whole time, he screamed at everyone else, demanding they put forth the same effort he did. I was extremely impressed.
The other coaches, who had been around Zach for three years, were not. They agreed that he was the most athletic player on the team and was passionate about the game. Perhaps too passionate. They pointed out how he’d lose control, and usually at the worst possible time. Zach’s number one flaw was a habit of late hits, and there’s nothing as deflating for a football team as late hits. You’ve done everything you can to stop your opponent, and then you get penalized fifteen yards because one of your Rhodes scholars creams a guy after the play is clearly over.
After listening to the coaches, I decided I would find a way to bring out the best in Zach. Taking on youngsters like him is the reason I coach.
Over the next several months, I made it a priority to get to know Zach. I couldn’t exactly develop a strategy to tone down his wildness until I had a good idea of what caused it. Zach was like a lot of teenagers: give them an opportunity to express themselves, in their own way and in their own sweet time, and they will slowly bring you into their orbit. Don’t listen, and instead try to impose your own views on them, and the barriers will remain, more impenetrable than ever.
What I learned about Zach was the great admiration he felt for his father, a former Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and US Air Force colonel. Here was my opening. I spoke to Zach about how responsible his father had been toward his nation. If he truly wanted to follow his father’s lead, he needed to be in more control of his emotions. He seemed to get it.
Imagine my frustration then, in the second game of the year, when he committed two more late hits. He also talked back to another coach after he was yelled at for one of the hits. Fortunately, his mistakes didn’t cost us the victory, but they easily could have. Regardless, I arrived home that evening as low as I’d ever felt coaching football. I had invested so much in helping to turn this kid around, and now it was clear that I’d failed. The other coaches were right about him.
Just then, a text came over my phone from Zach: coach, i’m sorry i let you down. i don’t even care that we won the game. i swear to god that as long as i play for you, this will never happen again. you have taught me to be a better man than i ever was, and i understand. never again. swear to god!
I put the phone down and started to tear up. He did get it, after all.
Zach made All-State as defensive back that year, and St. George’s got to the state championship game. And there were no more late hits.
He is completing his junior year at West Point. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I go to sleep every night feeling much safer because I know there are men like Zach Woods, whose duty it is to watch over our country. I know, as well, that because of the maturity he developed on the football field, he also has a great understanding of his responsibilities.
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