(Many who read the first in a series of stories about my son’s journey from elite youth baseball pitcher to two lost high school seasons separated by Tommy John surgery on his elbow asked about the coach who overused and mishandled him when my son was a freshman. Here’s more about his freshman experience that will leave you wondering why we’ve been programmed to believe parents are the problem and that coaches are always in the right. — TS)
By TED SILLANPAA
My son had spent the summer before his freshman year in high school preparing to try to play football, to be a quarterback in a what struck me as a complex, run-oriented option offense. He was 6-foot, 175 pounds with good speed. Strong. And, he was on an enforced layoff from baseball to rest his increasingly problematic elbow, so he took that time to build himself a football body, adding weight and muscle and gaining speed.
It’s worth noting that I raised my two oldest sons as one of those dads who just assumed they’d both to be high school sports stars and, after that, college scholarship athletes. They were raised in my hometown of Eureka where parents are particularly unaware of what it takes to make it in college. My oldest son was an all-state baseball third baseman-pitcher, as well as a quarterback good enough to get invited to the Nike and Reebok football scouting combines. You know those recruiting services that publish lists of top players before each season? One magazine had him listed among the top 20 senior QBs on the West Coast. None of that, not the all-state thing or the attention from national scouting services really turned out to mean a thing. My oldest son was 5-foot-9, 170 pounds … not particularly fast … just a strong-armed,accurate passer who was a really big baseball fish in a very, very small pond. There’s no market for 5-foot-9 quarterbacks or pitchers. I didn’t figure that out until much later.
Parents do their kids a disservice fueling the idea that youth sports success or high school stardom somehow makes a college scholarship a certainty. My older sons’ high school baseball coach and college counselor struck a chord by explaining, “You might be all-league here or even on an all-state team, but you’re not just competing for scholarships with athletes from your league, your town and your state. There are talented kids in Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine … everywhere … all competiting for athletic scholarships. So, be realistic, and think about where you rank nationally in your sport at your postion.”
Things worked out fine for my older sons. The oldest started at quarterback and played baseball as a freshman at an academics-oriented NCAA Division III college in Southern California. He earned the quarterback job by beating out a backup quarterback from Mater Dei High Schoool, the SoCal football power. That’s another thing parents and kids don’t consider — there are reserves at big-time sports schools better than the starters at the local high school. Regardless, I was prepared to be far more realistic about the type athlete my youngest turned out to be … if he turned out to be an athlete at all. Then, at age 12 or 13, he grew up, thinned out and became the type athlete showing signs he had the raw talent to develop into a college scholarship kid … if he wound up having the talent … and, if he avoided injury.
When my son was working out during his football summer before his freshman season, there were probably a bunch former kid football quarterbacks thinking they’d make a simple transition to high school stardom. Their parents hadn’t considered that there were guys who never played youth football out there who had the size and speed to attract a coach’s attention. My son was a big, muscular freshman with speed, strength and an incredible work ethic and advance workout regimen he got from his oldest brother. He did the right things in practice. He always hustled. Always in the front of every line. Always hung on every word the coach said. My youngest didn’t play the vocal rah-rah leader, but kept his head about him when buried with information about how to run a veer option offense. Youth football wouldn’t have prepared him to read defenses and run that attack. In fact, by not playing youth football, he didn’t have bad habits to break.
There was a small problem. My youngest son couldn’t consistently throw a football pass with a tight spiral. He couldn’t separate his baseball delivery from the delivery he needed to throw a football well. It hardly mattered, since he ran a veer option offense that rarely required a pass, but it worried him … until he started throwing passes in scrimmages and, then, games. The offense required him to fake hand offs, roll out and throw on the run. When he had no time to think, just time to react and throw, he threw OK. That didn’t keep his old man from arguing with him about how easy it is to throw a football. My son would routinely say, “You aren’t me and I’m not my oldest brother! It doesn’t matter if it’s easy for you guys.”
The Catholic high school he attended in Napa is a North Coast Section Division 4 football power. The head varsity coach is, without question, the best I’ve dealt with as a motivator of young men and offensive strategist. He clearly liked my son, cared about him and wanted to groom him to play varsity quarterback. My son arrived on campus known to be a freshman who would, without question, be varsity-ready when baseball season arrived. He’d pitched in national tournaments and results showed that, if healthy, he would contribute greatly as a freshman on the varsity at any high school around. He didn’t pick his high school based on sports. He chose it because it’s a college prep school with rules and guidelines and a campus lifestyle that suited him. Sports would come together, he figured, one way or another.
Football started to change how he viewed himself, though. He loved football. Loved the team spirit and being a team leader. While he was still learning to pass, he was a strong, effective runner. And, at 6-foot, 175 (maybe 185 during the season) he was a physical presence on his freshman football team. A bunch of those freshmen could’ve helped a winless junior varsity team, but the coaching staff kept all the freshmen together, figuring that familiarity with each other would help the program more than helping the JV finish 3-7 instead of 0-10.
The defense has a relatively simple task when defending the veer option. One thing the defense must do is hit the quarterback, hit him whether he’s got the ball or whether he already tossed it back to the running back. In a game against a cross-town Division I rival, my son ran ran down the line of scrimmage to left end. When the perimeter defender came for him, he tossed the ball to the halfback. As the defender approached to lay the important hit on the quarterback, my son planted his feet and met force with force . . . sending the defensive player flying in the air, then to the ground flat on his back. You only see that in freshman football where the quarterback might be the strongest kid on the field.
Later in that game, the cross-town D-1 team led by 3 points with time running out and … the head varsity coach had made his way to the sidelines where he could be part of his freshman coaches’ effort to pull off an upset. In Napa, it still matters if the small private school beats one of the big public schools in any sport. The private school had never beaten a big public school in football at any level. The running backs on my son’s team were awesome, they’ve become really good varsity players. Fast and strong. The were marching the ball to a potential go-ahead score … and the varsity coach kept getting more and more involved with things. Varsity coaches don’t usually wind up coaching freshman games, obviously.
With just under 2 minutes left, not much time in a freshman football game when it takes longer to get plays called, my son’s team faced fourth down-and-8 for a first down from about the other team’s 25-yard line.
The D-1 team had finally stopped the option run plays enough to force my son’s team to come up with a play that they felt could gain 8 yards without the luxury of a quarterback they knew could pass with accurately. Napa’s a wonderful town for high school sports, so the private school stadium’s bleachers were filled. The freshman coaches, really good men who were outstanding classroom instructors, were talking to my son when the varsity coach sort of muscled his way into the mix. He stood in front of my son, put his hands on his shoulder pads and looked him in the eyes as he always did when he talked to his varsity quarterbacks. The coach is a superior play-caller. He seems to call important plays based on his trust in a player more than in how the defense might react. The mileage he got out of a creative, speedy, elusive, 5-foot-7 quarterback in 2007 was amazing. He finished talking to my kid, slapped him gently on the helmet, smiled and sent him back to the huddle. The kid back-pedaled laughing before returning to his teammates.
My son took the snap and turned to, it appeared, run the veer option to the right. The defense reacted accordingly … but my son spun 90 degrees and raced toward the left flank. The defense’s contain man, the defensive end, had held his ground. A linebacker sniffed things out and was chasing my kid. There wasn’t a blocker or a potential pass receiver on the left side of the field. The crowd roared … seriously, it matters that much in Napa.
My son didn’t need years of youth football experience to know that he needed to get around left end and gain eight yards before the defense caught him … my older sons and his mom all leaped to their feet and shouted, “RRRRUUUUUUUNNNNN! RUN!!!” He wasn’t an experienced quarterback, but he could run … faster than normal when people were cheering and shouting his name, I noticed … and he beat containment simply running around the defensive end and then, we realized, turning up the field toward the goal line. He was getting the first down, but if he could outrun the linebacker … he was going to score the go-ahead touchdown.
The varsity head coach was running down the sidelines, cheering my son on as he just … ran faster than the linebacker and into the end zone for a touchdown. One of his most cherished sports photos is of his good friend, the center on the team, leaping on his back to celebrate the TD and the eventual victory.
What’s this have to do with baseball?
Well, it has to do with coaches and how they handle young athletes. The varsity football coach knew my son, trusted him. He knew he’d spent hours and hours and hours training all summer and that if he needed to gain 8 yards, my son was the biggest kid on the field and fast enough to outrun most defenders. He knew what my son could and couldn’t do on the field. Even if he didn’t completely trust my son, he convinced him during that timeout that he could make the play work. That’s a high school coach kids respect, a coach parents should respect and admire.
This football coach didn’t demand respect. He earned respect. In 2013, we’ve become a society that insists any man or woman hired to coach a high school team deserves our respect. Some deserve it. Some do not.
The football experience is about baseball because, in high school, parents lose control of their children’s fortunes. I would never in a million years have left the ball and the game in my son’s hands, but the coach knows football better than I do. My son and I would’ve argued that we needed to pass for the 8 yards, but that he couldn’t pass so … the coach knows what makes a football player and he’d decided my son was going to be a very good football player. He began, that night, really making an effort to support and encourage my son, but always by being tougher on him than on most others. The varsity coach would sometimes leave his team to step into the freshman team’s practice huddle and make sure my son knew that far more was expected from him than from anyone else … my son was initially confused, but realized later that the football coach was teaching him to carry a bigger burden.
That’s what I would expect a good high school coach to do for any athlete. I’d also expect the coach to view the parent as something other than the enemy who just gets in his way.
“I’ve never had a freshman who reads the defense and runs our offense as well as your son,” the varsity coach said one day, leaving his practice to talk to me. “I just wish he wasn’t such a good baseball player. I know he throws 85, 86 mph … somebody said he could hit 90 this summer, huh?”
I mentioned that, sure, if his elbow healed … a 90 mph fastball wasn’t far away.
“Do you know how many kids I’ve had come through here who, as freshmen, I knew were going to leave here with an athletic scholarship from an NCAA Division I college?” the football coach asked, watching his team, not looking at me. “None. I’ve had one kid go onto a D-I school and he grew into that type athlete. Your son … he’s got the body … the work ethic … the grades … he’s so impressive. He’ll shake my hand. He looks me in the eyes when we talk. Kids today … you’d be amazed … they won’t look you in the eyes. They can’t talk to adults.”
Hearing that coach, who doesn’t traffic in malarkey, surprised me. It’s really that rare to find a kid who treats adults with respect without being intimidated by them?
The football coach continued.
“But, I’m tellin’ ya … I don’t want to be the football coach who called the play where your son takes a hit and hurts his shoulder and can never pitch a baseball again,” he said. “There’s no telling how good a quarterback he can be, but I might never know. If he has a 90 mph fastball, I can’t ask him to give up baseball and really … I’d be sick to my stomach if a kid with an arm like that got hurt playing football.”
The coach left. At that school, as a 15-year-old freshman, he was designated a varsity baseball star from the start. My son would have to decide whether he wanted to see if he could achieve that level of success in football.
The varsity baseball coach approached my son with as much negativity as that football coach greeted him positively. Rather than encourage my kid to develop what skill he had, the baseball coach started from the standpoint where his job was to find things wrong with this freshman pitcher and prove he wasn’t good enough to pitch for the varsity. I’ve never seen a coach do more to make it harder on a student-athlete in my life.
My son had enough experience against elite regional and national competition so as not to be in awe of North Coast Section Division 4 hitters, even good hitters. He threw three pitches for strikes. His elbow felt fine after a months-long layoff.
(In the next installment of my son’s story, the freshman baseball season that ended one game short of career-altering Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.)