Fighters

“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”  Paul Valery

After my life of experiences, both personal and football related, I would have to argue that fighters aren’t born, they are made.  I would agree that some people are born with a little more fire in their bellies than others, but anyone can become a great fighter under the right circumstances.

One of my favorite movies is Million Dollar Baby with Clint Eastwood, Hillary Swank, and Morgan Freeman.  In the movie, Clint Eastwood has just lost his best fighter to another manager, and Hilliary Swank has come to him wanting to become a fighter because that’s all she’s ever felt that she was any good at.  We learn that the circumstances of her life have made her a fighter.  Eastwood’s character becomes persuaded to train her, and eventually, she becomes a champion.  One of my favorite lines is by Morgan Freeman’s character Scrap:

“To make a fighter you gotta strip them down to bare wood: you can’t just tell ’em to forget everything you know if you gotta make ’em forget even their bones… make ’em so tired they only listen to you, only hear your voice, only do what you say and nothing else… show ’em how to keep their balance and take it away from the other guy… how to generate momentum off their right toe and how to flex your knees when you fire a jab… how to fight backin’ up so that the other guy doesn’t want to come after you. Then you gotta show ’em all over again. Over and over and over… till they think they’re born that way.”

Every team needs fighters.  I think one of the problems I’m seeing over and over as a teacher and the wife of a coach is the mentality our society is building of entitlement, the lack of work ethic,  and the misunderstanding of consequences.  A coach nowadays, of any sport, has the extreme job of building fighters and players on their team through the means of reteaching kids how to think about life.  Many kids come to the playing field with the mentality that they deserve to play and that someone is going to hand them a championship trophy at the end of the season whether they have worked for it or not.  They come with lofty ideas about how good they are, and how they deserve to win.  Wins aren’t deserved-they are fought for relentlessly.

A few years ago I started learning to box.  I have a bag out in my garage.  I found in my own life that I wasn’t as strong of a fighter as I needed to be and that I didn’t handle criticism or failure very well at all.  Learning some basic aspects of boxing has made me feel more focused and capable.  I may not be great at it, but it is a process and helps me to feel both mentally and physically strong. When I put on my gloves I am transformed into someone stronger than I ever thought I could be.  I’ve been through some serious s#*t in my life where I’ve had to fight to survive.  All of that floods my mind when my gloves go on and I know that I am more than a conqueror.  If you’ve ever met me, that’s probably a funny thought since I’m 5’2″ and weigh about 120.  I promise I’m tougher than I look.

Players at higher levels of play should feel the same way when their uniform goes on.  I know some kids who may not be the strongest or fastest or most talented players on the field, but when they step on the field are morphed into some of the scrappiest and grittiest kids I’ve ever seen.  That’s because they’ve convinced themselves they are fighters.  They have found the fire in their bellies and stoked it with all of the times they failed and lost and got knocked down, and they let it fuel them. They will be the winners on the field but also in life.  They are determined.

Discipline has become a somewhat unsavory word in our society, but it is paramount for a team or a fighter to learn.  The voices we hear in our heads are under our control. We have to coach ourselves and allow ourselves to be coached by others with more strength and experience.   Work ethic, personal responsibility, and perseverance through failures, are all things a fighter must learn and mentally embrace.  There’s lots of talk about mental toughness in the sports world, but there aren’t lots of people who seem to have it.  People don’t want to talk about failure.  It’s the real “f-word”.  People don’t want to admit when they’ve failed or made mistakes and face the consequences.  But when you are able to admit your failures, you have the opportunity to learn, to regroup and to make a new strategy to succeed.  A fighter always finds a way to discipline themselves to come back after a failure with more fire and strength than they had before.

Losing a game is a wake-up call.  Losing at anything should be.  It’s a chance to find out where the potential fighters are.  Fighters don’t make excuses, they don’t hide the truth.  Fighters don’t point the finger because they know it’s all on them to step up, train harder, run faster, get stronger, before their next fight.  Fighters know there are consequences.  Losing is a consequence, but so is winning.  Fighters never, ever quit.

Recruiting Season

Disclaimer:  I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about here.  I am simply an observer, as I am with many things in life.  I take it all in and form an opinion, then I write about it.  But in the household where I reside, I pick up on a lot of things having to do with football, whether I really want to or not.  Living in this household I have seen and heard many things over the years.  Some I may share, and some I will not.  I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly of recruiting this year.  With all of that said, this is my take.

After the regular season come the playoffs, after the playoffs come the holidays, and right around the new year recruiting season comes into full swing.  I’m asked by friends if I’m relieved when football season is over.  Yes, in some ways it can be a relief, but in many ways it is just the beginning.  Recruiters come knocking.  They come to the school and to the homes of players.  They call on the weekends and at night while my family is trying to have dinner, or when The Coach and I are attempting to have an evening out.  Many of them think that The Coach will sway a player one way or another.  While The Coach can give advice when asked, he normally tries to stay neutral and is much more level-headed than I would be if I were in his shoes.  When The Coach arrives home at night, he tells me about all of the college coaches who have called or sent texts and the recruiters who have met with him that day.  Many times his whole day is spent with recruiters.  It is part of his job, but since he is also the Athletic Director, his job isn’t done, and he spends time between recruiters working on eligibility and working other sporting events at the school.  Sometimes the recruiters even attend the other sporting events to see athletes in action and meet various young people who may be of interest to them in the future.  He’s asked whether or not he has players who could be assets to the university or college.  He has to be honest.  While some players are tremendously talented on the field, many aren’t working as hard as they should in the classroom.

This year loads of colleges have come calling,  because of four-star rated Dax Hollifield.  He’s the kind of player every college wants because he’s simply a great kid.  I’ve watched him grow up.  He works hard both on and off the field, and is truly humble and pleasant to be around.  Stanford is interested in Dax, and a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet David Shaw, their head coach.  I’m not immediately impressed by anyone just because they are a fancy schmancy football coach.  But after meeting Coach Shaw, I was impressed.  That meeting inspired me to watch his Ted Talk about how football can save the world.  Now, I’m not a total believer in that statement, but after years of watching my husband and other great men coach, and learning more about the game of football than I ever wanted to learn,  I truly see value in the game.  In his talk, Coach Shaw explains how Stanford looks for intelligent and academically strong athletes.  They don’t simply wish to be a great school for academics or a great school who wins championships.  Schools don’t have to be one or the other, they can be both.  Coach Shaw explains how Stanford is paving the way for higher education to have greatness on the field and in the classroom in order to create young people who are valuable in a variety of areas and go on to help make the world a better place.  Young people who wish to be recruited have to catch on to this idea.

After the past few months, I find myself imagining what it must be like for high school athletes. There’s a whole plethora of message boards, forums, dot-coms, and recruiting analysts who have something called Crystal Ball Predictions, and it makes me nauseated  to think about the pressure these young people and their families experience. Some are noticed by everyone because of their outward, stand out athletic ability.  On film, they put on a show.   Recruiters know exactly what they are looking for, or do they?  How would it be to feel wanted by everyone?  Fought over constantly?  Some student-athletes know, but others who are talented won’t know.  They have to fight to be noticed.  How can they do that?  Is it worth it for a kid who dreams of playing in college or in the NFL?

According to a little digging and curiosity, I found that about a quarter of the athletes in the NFL weren’t ranked at all or recruited as a high school player.  Here are excerpts from two different articles I found on unranked players:

“Also impressive is that 19 players were rated as 2-star prospects or not rated at all, meaning nearly one-quarter of the players at the top of the league in 2016 brushed off the lack of belief in them by talent evaluators and grinded all the way to NFL greatness.”

Ben Kercheval, CBS Sports Writer

“This is often the most interesting category. These are the players that came out of nowhere and transformed themselves into NFL players. Most did so as a walk-on or playing at a Division II school or smaller.

The Arizona Cardinals first round pick, Haason Reddick, is a perfect example. He walked on at Temple as a defensive back and eventually blossomed into a force at defensive end leading the nation in tackles for loss as a senior.

Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk is another example of unranked to first rounder. He started his career at the Division III level at UW-Stevens Point before transferring to Wisconsin and transforming into an All-American. Now, he’s a member of the New Orleans Saints.

New Orleans Saints second round pick Gerald Everett signed with Bethune-Cookman (Florida) out of high school, while Chicago Bears second round pick Adam Shaheen was plucked out of Ashland University (Ohio).”

Chris Hummer, 247 Sports

Some young athletes are going to have to work to make connections because they will never be officially recruited.  Head coaches aren’t able to make every athlete look like a star.  Even when head coaches recommend players, it never comes down to the word of the coach.  Young men must learn to advocate for themselves, but how?  One of the ways they can help their chances of playing at the college level and possibly receiving scholarships is hard work on and off the field, meeting and talking with college coaches, attending camps, and making college visits.  My friend and coworker, Omar Porter, recently started producing videos and podcasts to help young athletes learn to market themselves as worthy student-athletes and find college programs where they would like to play.

Click here to check it out:  https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D9JLVMxrJPYk&h=ATOsxQfNEL_gK29LXy_YCHdJ5Rdp83uGZl1iRljMg239R4fO-YL7_VHVNi6QDGKBfeDZXHHccIlPJHlgYtSlWtIheEqAwSPNHcuN4cMK974zGTKKQ3unJ42XKA&s=1&enc=AZMkszW8EPy_dy6lRd9xI9aXzUT9nXdURxVhMcak5At9VW5Od96w_dEsKiz-z_Gqg88

In only a few days young men from all over the country will sign a commitment to one school or another.  The hard work of athletes, families, coaches, and teachers will pay off.  May they all follow their hearts and find that the dreams that they have for themselves are greater than they ever imagined, and for those who don’t sign but still have hopes of playing at the college level, may those young men not give up on their dreams but perhaps find another road that takes them where they want to go.

Dear Anonymous,

I’m sure The Coach isn’t the first to receive an anonymous letter telling him all of his faults and how he should have coached last Friday night’s game, and I’m sure he won’t be the last head coach to receive such a letter.  On behalf of all the people who put themselves out there in life, for all of the men who take their life and use it for the betterment of their community by coaching high school football, literally for pennies in the state of North Carolina, for all of those men who spend more time on the field than they do with their family,  only to have faceless and nameless people call them out, degrade them, or criticize them, I want to write a letter to you, Anonymous.

Dear Anonymous,

You see, I have no problem at all with people expressing their thoughts and feelings in the form of words.  I have done it myself at times in the heat of the moment, spouting off my feelings when I was angry or hurt, or thought of a better way in which I saw that things could have been done, but the difference between you and I, Anonymous, is that I signed my work.

Some people have guts.  Some people are the kind of people who may not be our favorite people, but we know they will be honest and upfront with us.  They come to us, yes, to our face, in person, or write us a note, and sign it with their real name, and tell us what’s up.

Last Friday night, I was as angry as any other person who watched that game.  I said some words to The Coach right after the game about how I thought things should have been done, then got up on Saturday morning and talked with him about some other things that I had thought of during the night.  You see, I didn’t get to see The Coach come home since I went to bed at 1:30 after waiting up for him.  He and the other coaches were at the field house watching film and working until 3:30am.  Where were you then Anonymous? Probably sleeping.

Late Friday night I had to apologize to two friends I was rude to at the game, because I was so worked up, and said some things and some words I shouldn’t have said.  I take responsibility for my words.  Fortunately, they understood and forgave my blatant honesty and rudeness, and we are still friends.  We can say things to each other that are honest, and real, and be okay with it and move on.  Maybe you should take a lesson, Anonymous, and learn to do so as well.

I respect the opinions of others, but when you take to social media and hide behind your computer to call someone out in front of the world, or send anonymous letters to someone’s home, taking measures to make sure it is typed and not handwritten, (Oh my, do we know you that well to know your handwriting, Anonymous?)  Then that tells me just how big of a coward you truly are.

In your letter, you call out a couple of the coaches for their lack of involvement and ability.  If you are such a fantastic analyst of football and coaching, then truly, you should get yourself out there and volunteer your time and talents like several of our coaches do.  You see, my husband and all of the other coaches on the Shelby staff have a gift.  They have the ability to work with young men, inspire young men, and coach teams to greatness.  The put their faces, names, and families in the line of fire each and every week, as they get out there and coach in front of “fans” like yourself who like to pick apart and find fault with what they are doing.  It’s easy to see what’s wrong from way up there in the stands.  The field is a different place indeed.  It has a completely different perspective.  If you are truly so gifted, why aren’t you putting yourself out there, and helping coach the team?  Oh, that’s right.  You’re a coward.

Don’t, for a second, think you know what goes on in a coach’s life, or household.  Perhaps you, Anonymous, have a perfect life, with plenty of spare time on your hands.  Well, coaches don’t have that luxury.  Our coaches are dealing with plenty of real-life problems each and every week.  They don’t simply appear and get to put every second of their energy into a bunch of players who have it all together.  Sometimes they are busy making the very best out of bad situations.  It is easy to criticize what you don’t understand.   The coaches go home to households where things aren’t perfect either.  They have kids who get sick or hurt,  kids who need help with homework, parents who are sick or having surgery, laundry, yard work, busted pipes, garage doors that need repair, wives who need some attention, babies on the way, new babies crying in the night, houses for sale, and so much more.  Could you balance all that life throws at you, and coach a team to four straight state championships?  I challenge you to do so, Anonymous.  I challenge you to even try.   But, you will never be the kind of man my husband is.  You will never be the kind of man that any high school football coach is because you are too chicken shit to even put your name on a letter.  You mentioned that The Coach has “an air” about him.  He is borderline arrogant at times, but he has to be to do what he does.  He has confidence in himself, his assistant coaches, and his players.  I hope that someday you will find your confidence, Anonymous.

In closing, I want to recommend you find a positive and productive hobby, Anonymous, instead of picking apart people who are actually getting out there and putting their time and energy into helping young men to be successful.  Best wishes for the future.  Next time you want to say something, feel free to write me a letter.  Just be sure to sign it.

Most sincerely,

Catherine M. Ware

 

Rivals

“Don’t matter what they throw at us.  Only angry people win football games.”

Darrell Royal

Who are we without our rivals?  In football, the very best rivalries are often between schools which are close in proximity (like Clemson and South Carolina), and have a deep tradition and history of playing against each other (like Auburn and Alabama).  Here in the south it’s a bit like a family argument, and everybody takes sides.

In Cleveland County,  proximity and tradition hold true for all four of our high schools.  I attended Kings Mountain High School just on the other side of Buffalo Creek, so naturally I hated Shelby.  The Coach attended Shelby, so he was a Golden Lion all along.   When I started dating The Coach, I couldn’t even bring myself to cheer for The Golden Lions for the first few games.  He finally told me, “If we’re going to date and be serious, then I need you to pull for my team”.  I did, begrudgingly at first, but I’ve come to love his Golden Lion team and the fans.

The weeks when we play our rivals, The Coach tends to stay up later than normal watching film and working on his strategy.  I may get in trouble later for saying that, but it’s true.  It pushes him to do his best to outsmart that other team, since a year’s worth of bragging rights are at stake.  But I think it’s more than that.  Rivals in Cleveland County are serious.  They produce a brotherly animosity.  We can all be friends, unless we’re playing against each other.

I liken our county rivalries to a little competition The Coach and I sometimes have.  Occasionally, we sit down to play a friendly game of checkers.  It begins innocently enough at the kitchen table with some cold beverages in hand.  Laughter mingles with conversation, and we start off in an easygoing way with our game.  But…The Coach is masterful with strategy, the tide begins to turn, and suddenly I find myself playing to win.  I’m not terribly competitive, so it’s a bit foreign to me to have these feelings of wanting to smash him like a bug over a simple game of checkers.

I scan the black and red squares, and study my moves methodically before taking my finger off the checker to finalize my spot on the board.  I force myself to think one, two, three moves ahead to see what opportunities I might be providing for him.  The Coach likes to harass me with trash talk during the match.  He is used to this feeling of competition and heated rivalry.  As for me, it becomes a stressful experience.  By the end of the game I’m ready to draw blood.  I’ve nicknamed these battles “Checker Death Matches” for their intensity.  I can’t stand to lose to him.

I have become a much better checker player by playing these little games with The Coach, much better than I really even care to be at checkers.  What is it with these checker matches?  Why do I change into this person who becomes so focused and calculating, unnerved and belligerent?  Of course I want to win, but more than that, I think I want the respect of my opponent who is clearly better than I am at the game. I think too that I need that sense of accomplishment, of being better than I’ve been before. That’s possibly what all rivalries truly are, a need for respect and acknowledgement of effort (pride and bragging rights are a pretty nice bonus). When it comes down to it, our rivals make us better. They make us work harder than we would without them. To play against a worthy opponent drives us forward and strengthens our resolve.

Rivals aren’t simply reserved for sports, in reality they are everywhere, and each of us face our own rivals daily.  Some of us choose to take them on, and we become better people for it.  We face them in a difficult boss or competitive coworker, a dream that takes our all, a sickness, a goal we keep fighting to reach, a loved one with an addiction, an assignment that seems too much for us to handle, or a team who truly wants to beat us.  Rivals make us stronger than we would ever be on our own.  We hate them, but perhaps we should be thankful for them.  They can make us better people and better teams if we choose not to let them crush our spirits.  They may defeat us momentarily but if we consistently make the decision to get back up to fight another day, they can help make us great.  They will give us a sense of accomplishment, and when we defeat our rivals….we feel invincible if even for a season.

I feel grateful, and I think The Coach might say the same, that we have the teams in our county who fight the good fight. We might hate each other on the field, but afterward the brotherhood continues. The Coach talks on the phone with the other county coaches frequently.  They are friends.  I’ve overheard bits and pieces of conversations, and they all seem to share a deep respect for one another as coaches and people. Personally, I don’t think we would have four state championships if not for those teams we play each year from our own county, those rivals who challenge us to be better, and to play and coach and cheer our hearts out.

Sugar Bear

There once was a man who was larger than life, and was at times more like an imagined character from a movie.  Around his house Larry was referred to as “Sugar Bear”.  He had a thick head of wavy white hair, and a roundness to him which made him much like a burly bear.  There were barely believable stories he could tell about adventures at the courthouse,  interesting cases he’d heard, or some time from his wilder teenage days driving fast cars on the streets of Shelby.

He announced Friday night football games with a muffled, deep voice that seemed a bit congested, but charismatic none the less.  His laugh was raspy from years of smoking.  Mistys were frequently his cigarette of choice, creating the humorous scene with his large hands holding a dainty “lady” cigarette.   Chuckles of laughter mingled with his words when he spoke.  “It’s a Golden Lion first down.”  There was a smile behind that voice, and every listening ear in the stadium could hear it.  Why was he so happy?  He was announcing the games, his wife always by his side, there helping him spot in the press box.   His oldest son down on the sidelines coaching, or in early years he was “up top” calling plays over the headset.  His younger son dressed out ready to go in for a play.  It was a family affair.  I sat in the stands half-way watching the games, catching up with friends, and sneaking a cigarette in the parking lot during half time.

When I began dating The Coach he took me one night to meet his parents.  This was “The Night of a Thousand Questions”.    Larry, being the magistrate he was, grilled me.  I held up, but it wasn’t easy.  He wanted to know who my daddy was, and where I had come from.  He wanted to know my future plans, and who my friends were.  He asked me whether or not I knew certain people.  Community and connections were important to him.  He passed that love of community along to his family.  He passed many parts of himself along to us.

The Coach loved his dad even though they often times would butt heads and argue over decisions.  I butted heads with Larry even worse than The Coach did.  Larry always had a strong sense of what should happen, and how it should happen.  He would let you know what he thought, even if you didn’t ask.  “You know what you should do Cat?”  He would say to me.  No.  I didn’t want to know what he thought I should do.  I was as stubborn as they come, and sometimes I still am.  I have softened a little bit over the years with lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

Even though he frustrated me at times, I would go to him for advice when I sincerely needed a wise opinion.  He never steered me wrong.  He knew I had a mind of my own, and I think he respected me for speaking up and not simply going along, or taking things at face value.  Sometimes I’m not sure how I ever made it into the inner circle of the Ware family.  I’m not so much like them, but Larry came to love me anyway.  He truly loved people, and wanted to help them make good decisions.  The Coach would call his dad daily to tell him all of the good things that were happening, and to ask him how he should handle difficult people or situations.  I see Larry each time The Coach works with a player, assistant coach, or a parent to help them, or when he meets with players or parents to talk about predicaments or future decisions.  He has such a way with people, and that came directly from his father.

I see Larry everyday.  Certainly not the way  I would physically see him when he was here with us, but I see his character.  My oldest son has a great understanding of sports, and has done some announcing of games for the city park.  He takes after Larry, who he called Papa Shug, in that way.  My middle child is charismatic and charming.  He loves fast cars, and much like Larry he can persuade and talk his way into and out of things with ease.  My little girl is so much like Larry that we often joke that he sent her to us.  She loves people and the kind of social situations that fueled him.  She smiles and laughs with her giggles mingled into  words just like he used to do.  She has a true love for life.  The Coach reminds me more and more of his father with every passing year.  Don’t get me wrong, he is his own man, but we often laugh at how he will try to tell me what I “should do” on a regular basis.  He drags me to hear beach music at every opportunity.  The same beach music Sugar Bear would be listening to each evening as he sat on his stool at their kitchen bar.  The Coach loves people, he loves our community, and he is always ready for a social event.  Through all these things, Larry is alive with us, and carried with us.

He left us on July 9th of 2009.  I remember the doctor coming to the waiting room to tell us that he didn’t make it through the surgery.  I was shaking and my teeth chattered.  I wanted to cry and laugh all at the same time.  It was like being smothered by every emotion simultaneously.  Jolts of pain for those of us left behind, and promises of hope for Larry to be carried on wings to heaven.  “Be Free!”, the words echoed in my mind over and over, “Be Free”.  That was all I could think.  His body had imprisoned his spirit those final years.

I think of him always in July.  It is an interesting time for a football family, because it’s the start of a new season.  It’s as if he knew this, and went just at the time when we would need to be reminded every year of new beginnings and feel hopeful for the upcoming season.  We would be busy with football.  Too busy and occupied to feel sorry for ourselves for very long, because Larry would never want us to feel sad.  He would want us to have a fresh start, a new adventure, and to love life just the way he did.

After he died I had a dream of him driving up in a race car that had number 57 painted on the side.  The window was rolled down and he looked great, younger than I had ever seen him,  fresh,  with a big bright smile.  His handsome thick, white hair was combed back and blowing gently in the breeze.  He wasn’t sick.  In the dream I looked at him and said, ” I thought 56 was your number.”  He laughed that same laugh that I had known when he was alive.  The carefree kind of laugh that he had, even though his life should have been full of cares.  He looked at me and said, “No, that’s Linda’s number on her race car.”  That was terribly funny to me, and I laughed as he drove off and out of my dream.  In my heart I believe it was him.  Speaking to me from the other side of that thin veil that separates this life from the next.