I failed with the greatest football player I ever coached. He played for me in high school and I predicted he would be a great pro player someday. He led us to three undefeated seasons. People told me he reminded them of Jim Brown the great Cleveland back.
No player was more coachable… he believed in me and would always listen. Maybe, because of two incidents that occurred during his high school years when he played for me.
The first was when he was a sophomore linebacker. He collided head to head with a teammate and dislocated his jaw. The joint was up around his ear. No doctor was around so I used my first aid training and relocated it. The pain was terrible, but afterwards, he remarked, “Thanks Coach, I will always listen to you”.
The second incident occurred during training. We would go to pre-season camp and had no place to shower so we bathed in a small river. He wandered out too far and went under. I swam out and brought him to shore. He remarked, “Thanks Coach, you saved my life, I will always listen to you”.
With his success, he played in the Big 33 game and was awarded the Most Valuable Player. In college he was named the most outstanding sophomore in the Big 10.
At 21 years of age, he died of a drug overdose.
I went to his funeral and I prayed at his coffin. His parents told me it was my fault he died. I was stunned, “How could it be my fault” I wondered. They said he would have listened to me. He never smoked tobacco or drank liquor because I told him not to – these were my rules; no tobacco, no alcohol. I never mentioned drugs. Drugs? In the 1940’s and 50’s? I knew nothing about drugs then, but they are certainly with us today.
I am very concerned about the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco by kids. I have 12 grandkids and 3 great grandchildren. I hope to get this message to them.
If you’re a coach, don’t take the players in your charge lightly. A coach is a teacher, a role model, an authority figure and a protector. It’s a powerful role. Please learn from where I failed and respect that power.
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