Coach Russell’s Ruminations – November

The thought I’d like to share with you this month started in the form of a question I was asked…

“Were you embarrassed?”

That question was asked after I presented an award at our annual football banquet last February. Our tradition here dictates that the position coach presents the award if a member of his group is the winner. I presented one of my graduating seniors with our award for desire, dedication, and commitment, and I became very emotional while doing so.

To understand, if you’re able to, I must provide some background for this particular young man. During his freshman season, I was coaching another position, and shifted to inside linebackers during the off-season. It just so happened that we graduated two starters at ILB, so not only was I taking on a new position, I was inheriting a group with no real game experience returning. As I grew into my new group of guys, he grew into a starter as a sophomore. We had a great year, and won our conference championship. This particular young linebacker had a lot of talent, but even more character and leadership ability. As a junior, he had an even better season, and lead our team in solo tackles.

Heading into his senior year, we expected big things from him. However, the universe had a double-whammy in store for him. Shortly after his arrival back on campus, he received word that his father, who was his biggest fan and best friend, had passed away. He was crushed. He stood in front of a team meeting on a muggy August evening, informed the team what had happened, and then told them that he would return as soon as he possibly could so that they would be back together for the grind of pre-season camp. True to his word, he returned to the team the day after the funeral. Football, and his teammates, was his sanctuary. Pretty incredible stuff.

A couple of weeks later, he ran down the field to cover the opening kickoff. Naturally, he was in on the tackle. He came off running a bit funny, but told me he was fine, his shin just hurt. In the second quarter, on a fourth and goal play for our opponent, he ran through the fullback’s iso block, and made a tackle for a loss. He went on to finish the game, played well, and we won 23-21. At practice on Monday, his limp was worse. I finally ordered him to see the athletic trainer. It turned out that he had broken his leg on the opening kickoff. He played through the pain to help us win. What a kid.

In the span of three weeks, he lost his father and his senior football season. He was devastated, and my heart ached for him. Fortunately, the NCAA granted him a hardship, and he received a fifth year of eligibility. He competed as a graduate student, and was commissioned as a 2nd LT in the United States Army. He was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the heart and soul of a team which greatly overachieved, won 7 games, and reached the post-season yet again.

He was not present at the banquet. He was stationed in Arizona, serving our country. Thanks to technology, one of our players had him on Skype, so he was able to see me present him with the award. As I recounted what he’d been through, my voice broke. When I told hundreds of people, through tears, that I hope my daughter marries someone like him, I meant every word of if.

No, I was not embarrassed. I’m an emotional guy, both good and bad, and when I tell my players how I feel about them, they know I’m telling the truth. I will never change that, and I hope you’ll never be embarrassed to SHOW your players you care about them.