His first practice with us two years ago wasn’t good. He struggled to finish the warm up lap. He was last to get to all of the drills, none of which he was able to finish before having to move on to the next one. Push-ups and sit-ups were near impossible and the end of practice conditioning was painful to watch. But, he ended the practice with a smile on his face and a promise to return the next day. And he did. Still sore from day 1, he struggled again to get through practice, but he made it through, smiled and said, “see you tomorrow coach.” And he did. Day after day, practice after practice, he kept coming back. Each day getting a little better than the day before.
Still, as the season approached, he wasn’t nearly ready or able to play regularly in a game. We would make sure he got into the games, but after just a few plays, he would be tired and ready for a break. Still, he arrived at practice every day with a smile on his face and ready to work hard. As the season progressed, we all got to learn he had a special personality and a quick wit. When the coach asked if the team had cheerleaders, he announced, “I’m all over that coach!” Or when the coach kiddingly said that someone was going to screw up the snap count, he shouted, “I’m prepared to do push-ups, coach!” only to be followed by, “would you like me to do them here or come back to the huddle first?” when he actually did screw up the snap count. When coach announced at the end of one practice that the team would be doing the “wagon wheel”, a tough version of duck-duck-goose in which the kids sprint over a circle of teammates laying on their stomachs, he mused, “That must suck if your the slowest kid on the team, oh wait a minute…” knowing that in fact he was the slowest kid on the team.
By mid year, he had won over the hearts of his teammates and the coaching staff. He still wasn’t playing a lot, but the improvements in his conditioning and skills were noticeable. His smile and quick wit never went away, even as we struggled through a tough schedule. He was everyone’s biggest supporter, the first to give high fives, pats on the back, and words of encouragement to anyone and everyone. The biggest play of the season for him was a sack, which was followed by an impromptu sack dance that had everyone laughing. By the season’s end I remember saying, “I hope he comes back next year. He needs football in his life,” because he had improved so much during the year. After the final game, we told him that he needed to continue to work on his conditioning, that while he had come a long way, he couldn’t allow himself to fall back during the off season. We challenged him to make himself a better athlete.
When this season started, he came back an different person. He was thin, fit and more athletic. He still wasn’t the fastest, quickest, or strongest on the team, but he was finishing the drills, running laps, and managing conditioning as well as any 13 year old could. He was physically changed, a combination of physical maturity and an off season working out with a trainer. When the season started, he was a starting two-way tackle. The year prior, he struggled to play 5 plays in a row, this year he was barely coming off the field. By mid season he was the team’s de facto captain, leading calisthenics for all 120 seventh and eighth grade students. And he didn’t lose his sharp tongue, either. When his teammates started counting out the stretches in spanish, his quick wit ended that quickly with, “C’mon guys, they don’t play football in Mexico! Do it right!”.
It was a no brainer to have Fred carry on the tradition of having an 8th grade player speak at the end of year banquet. So, when Fred courageously stood in front of a crowd of 400+ (including a very proud mom) and thanked his coaches and teammates for, “picking me up and dusting me off” after the passing of his father mid way through the season, their wasn’t a heart untouched or a dry eye in the house. He spoke of how moved he was when the sea of white jerseys entered the funeral home for his father’s wake. He thanked his teammate who brought him cookies, and made the crowd laugh when he said, “whoever thought of baking an oreo cookie inside of another cookie is a genius.” and he thanked his coaches for rides to and from games and supporting him during his time of need. He even specifically thanked one coach for being his dad’s best friend.
Fred walked off that stage to a standing ovation. Mom was standing, wiping tears from her face, proud of the strength with which her little boy spoke. Parents were standing because of his brave words. His teammates and coaches were standing because of his brave heart. Fred had turned himself into more than an athlete this year, he turned himself into a young man.
It’s a wonderful thing when kids teach us lessons. I was wrong about Fred when I said that he needed football, because we needed Fred. We needed his effort, we needed his personality, we needed his support, and I needed his reminder that kids have the amazing capacity to meet the expectations of caring adults. In the wake of a sorrow no thirteen year old should experience, Fred grew into the emotional leader of our team. Our boys went undefeated in the playoffs, including two upsets to two teams that had beaten us handily in the regular season. Winning the league championship was satisfying, but for me the lasting legacy of this season will be Fred and the lessons of bravery, humility and dedication that he taught us all.