Taking One For The Team
September 6, 2012
Players' spikes shuffled on the terrazzo floor of the locker room. The players were just beginning to cluster around the writing board near the towel hamper. The coach scanned the room like radar, taking note that a player was just entering the circle 10 minutes after the posted practice time. Just outside, heat hung in the air like oppressive fog over the Presidio.
"You're 10 minutes late," said the coach in a measured-but-sardonic tone. "Practice starts at four, not 10-after. You don't show much respect for your teammates or the coaches when you show up late." That was the doctrine -- one for all, all for one, e pluribus unum. The player made an attempt: "I'm sorry coach, I had to walk today." Some sins are larger than other sins. Unmoved, the coach replied, "Well, I'll tell you what. Be on the practice field at six tomorrow morning, and I'll meet you at 6:30, 'kay?"
It was the third week of August in those days that hung dead in between seasons -- too late to be summer, too early to be fall. Football players know them as "two-a-days" where practices are equally divided between early morning and late afternoon hours in order to temper the late-August heat. Regardless of the level of play, from college and professionals to aspiring junior-varsity players, late August is not for fun. It's a time where pretenders drift away and the intrepid stick it out. Like military boot camp, terms are unconditional. It is in these first weeks a team's commitment is forged or its absence exposed. In these heat-saturated weeks of bruises and exhaustion, the core of the team is built and even those who in everyday life might not say hello to each other become bonded in the cause (however trivial this appears to the outside world).
So, arriving even a minute late is frowned upon with consequences, but as the Chinese say, a thousand sins can be overcome by one great virtue. In this case, an object lesson for the team. So, the following morning the player quietly exited the kitchen door and made his way to old Fancher Field. He was there in the false dawn, jogging, stretching and waiting. Six-fifteen, six-thirty, seven ... still no coach (there must have been a misunderstanding). At seven-thirty, other players began mustering for the scheduled eight o'clock practice and everyone gathered for the routine, which included the day's regimen, meted out like a military attack briefing.
As the coach approached the circle his laser gaze went right to the player; the quarterback's time in the barrel not yet finished. "Well ... were you on the field at six this morning?"
"Yes coach, I was here."
"And did you see me here?" the coach queried. The player shook his head.
"See, I wasn't there because I didn't care enough to get up and be there after all. It just wasn't that important to me. Now, I'd like you to be there again tomorrow morning at six; I may or may not show up, depending..."
Other coaches have no doubt used variations of this object lesson across the seasons. It happened a long time ago. The coach was my father and the player was me. The lesson was forever.