COACH’S CORNER: Players fans may forget, but coaches don’t

Columbia City head coach Brett Fox talks to his team after a victory last season. (Photo by Leverage Photography)

In every high school athletic department, the football team is usually the one with the most athletes.  You need 11 players on the field, but it takes several more to make a team.

Most schools (although maybe not as many as their used to be) have varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams, each with multiple players at different positions.

At most high schools, there are players that you remember – the starting quarterback, the big-play receiver or the all-star defender, just to name a few. The beauty of a football team is that there are often players who do not get the accolades, but are just as important to the success of the team.  While many go unnoticed to the public eye, the coaches certainly don’t forget them and the lasting impact they had on their teams.

When I describe this kind of player, I’m sure anyone who’s ever coached or played high school football knows of someone who fits this category. It’s the player who never really impresses anyone with their talent. They are often seen as a nuisance in drills and are sometimes guilty of being in the way of a coach or player. We all know that kid.

Many of these players will never get to see action on Friday night, except for maybe on special teams or mop-up duty.  So the question becomes, why would any young man continue to play football and not get in the game?

That’s a very complex question with many different answers. In my time as a coach, I’ve seen players that just simply wanted to be part of something. Football is one of the few sports where most programs do not cut or remove players just because of ability, so those kids are naturally drawn to the sport knowing that they can be a part of something bigger than themselves.

In our society, many children are seeking that connection with others. The great thing about football is that it naturally provides them that sense of brotherhood. The locker room is something that several of the players that I’ve come in contact with just want to be a part of.  It’s because of this that even players who maybe aren’t the best athletes are often out there every single day trying their best.

Still, some players fit the category of players who love the game so much that they won’t let anyone tell them that they’re not going to be successful. Many players I have known across the city, possibly with a hint of arrogance, think that their time will come if just given a chance.  Many times that chance does come, only to realize that the game is much bigger than they are. While some are humble when given their shot on a Friday night, others prove their worth and make an impact.

Then there are some who no matter what they do or how hard they work just do not possess the God-given abilities to truly make an impact. These players, however, are usually the ones coaches love the most. 

In my 13 years of coaching high school football, I ran into several players like this. Try as they might, they just never gained enough to earn them a spot to get varsity playing time. These players were often self-aware. I knew that they were never going to get to be a key player, but they were also some of the best teammates I’ve ever seen.  They were the first ones in the facility during summer conditioning and the last to leave the field at the end of practice. Oftentimes they did more than what was required of them, just to show their worth in a different way.  

When I was coaching at Northrop in 2017, we had a young man by the name of Ben Walley. He was a senior offensive lineman who worked very hard and was an incredibly gifted student. Though he was not the greatest football player, every single night after all of the players had left, Walley stayed after and swept the locker room, picking up any trash left behind by his teammates. He was always the last to leave, even sticking around after most of the coaches had left. I asked him one day why he did that.  It wasn’t his responsibility to do it, but rather the responsibility of the whole team. His response is unforgettable, “It’s the right thing to do.”

A simple phrase like that showed me how important he was to our team. Here was a player who had no reason to stay after and do something bigger than himself, yet he did, day in and day out. I will never forget Walley and the amazing work ethic he showed and his dedication to his team and the program.

The player that I think about daily is someone who never got to play one down for me while coaching at North Side. His story and his amazing work ethic are what keep me doing the things I’m doing today.

Niang Htoo was someone I coached at North Side in 2016. He was deaf, was in moderate special education classes and also was an immigrant from Thailand. 

Htoo very easily could have been a manager or a student helper, but he wanted to be a player. Every single day in the summer he would ride his bicycle to our practice field at North Side, put on his equipment and, with the help of his translator, go through drills and practice.

Per the IHSAA, a player must be enrolled full-time at a school to be an active participant in athletics. Being that Htoo was in the school’s moderate special education department meant that he wasn’t getting enough classes to be considered eligible.  Did that deter him? Of course not. He never missed one practice or one game and was one of the best teammates I’ve ever seen.  He was coachable, he listened through his translator and he understood what we were trying to teach him.  If we needed him to move in a certain direction he would do it, if we needed him to try something again he wouldn’t argue.  His work ethic and consistent smile made coaching worth it every single day.

You can watch a video of Niang Here

I’m sure that countless others fit similar stories like the ones I’ve told. Players are putting in the work at our area high school teams today that know very well that they’re never going to make an impact for their team on the field. But sometimes, players leave lasting impacts on their coaches not for scoring touchdowns, but for sometimes doing the little things or doing things that we don’t expect. In some cases, they do truly amazing things.

So while you’re cheering your loudest for the player scoring all the touchdowns and getting all of the recognition, take a moment and remember all of the players who don’t get that same admiration and want to be out there so badly. Say a little cheer for all the players who are putting in the hard work just to be part of something bigger than themselves.

We can all learn something from those who don’t always have the spotlight on them, but never seem to let themselves think they are any less valuable.

Coaches Corner appears weekly at Outside the Huddle. The author Ben Martone played football in the SAC and has coached at North Side and Northrop. He is currently a teacher at Weisser Park Elementary in Fort Wayne Community Schools.


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