Eastside Catholic was our first opponent. Coming off our success in the jamboree, it was time to play the first full game. We would play on Saturday afternoon at their home field. The first full football game would be a new experience in our journey. Some of the kids would be playing in their first full scale football game. For me, it would be the first time on the sidelines for an entire game. Similar to the jamboree of the previous week, there was no way of predicting how everything would work. Eastside was a school I hadn’t been to, but was familiar with the location of the school. The game would be longer and my role would be different. We arrived at the field with more time for warm ups. It would be interesting to experience the differences of a full game. Personally, beginning part of my coaching career with the opponent of Eastside Catholic was unique. My involvement in football began with Eastside Catholic as a kid.
As a young kid the chance of being a ball boy presented itself. As fate, would have it the opportunity was with Eastside Catholic high school. At around the age of ten my father became connected with the head football coach at Eastside Catholic. The coach’s son and I were around the same age. Eastside was in need of another ball boy to help the coach’s son with the duties. Who can remember if I was simply volunteered or asked beforehand, but it turned into an exciting couple years of high school ball boy duties. The full range of our duties have escaped my memory through the years. But, we were in charge of making sure a football was in the officials’ hands after each play of the offense. Friday night games were a lot of fun and the practices attended were exciting. The players seemed so big and football felt an overwhelming game. I was trying to help out, staying out of the way. It was a great experience and lead to my curiosity about getting involved in football.
Today, Eastside Catholic has a new campus. We didn’t play on the same field of my ball boy youth. We played on their new field sitting down about 15 rows of bleacher seats from the school’s athletic facility. After watching some action from the game before ours, it was time to begin warming up. Walking down onto the field, we gathered behind an end zone, using the track area to run through some plays. The pre-game preparations were similar to those of the prior week, before the jamboree. It felt as though we had more pre-game time this week, which provided the opportunity to review more activities from practice. The extra time also seemed to help our kids truly shift their focus to playing football. By the time our opportunity to play came, they seemed primed to play. We took our place on the visiting sideline, shaking hands with the kids who played just before us. It was time to play.
As we began the game, my role had changed from the jamboree. It had become my role to keep track of plays. In our league, each of our kids is required to play ten plays each game. The process required keeping track of the total number of plays. Each play had a tally mark and the plays were separated into offensive and defensive plays. They were also separated by the number of plays for each drive. Each time we played on offense, the plays were given tally marks until we turned the ball over or scored. Then when we got the ball back, another line was created and plays were marked for the duration of the next offensive drive. The same process took place for defense. The separation of offense and defense gave us a good idea of how many the regular players on offense and defense played. The process came down to focusing on just a few players who were substituted in and out of the game. Coaches made sure those substituted got their number of snaps, which turned out to be more than ten. It was less complicated to track than I thought it might be, but did take some getting used to. With so much going on during the game, it took time to become comfortable with the new responsibility.
With the clipboard in hand, it became more difficult to watch the intricate movements. My attention was preoccupied with the number of plays. Marking the plays on the clipboard was no easy task to begin with. Using any clipboard with cerebral palsy is uniquely challenging. With most people having the ability to balance the device like a table, CP doesn’t allow that to happen. In order to make my tally marks, the clipboard required stability from more than an off-hand. Because we were standing on the sideline, after each play the clipboard was rested on my leg for stability and a tally was made. As the game went on the process became easier, with my muscles becoming accustomed to marking the tallies. By the time we were playing in the second half, my body had begun performing the responsibility more quickly, adding comfort to the process, and allowing me to concentrate more fully on the movement of each play.
The kids played well against Eastside Catholic. For our first full game, things looked pretty good. We began the game quickly, scoring without the use of many plays. Eastside fought hard against us, but were only able to hang 6 points on the board. While our 8 and 9 year olds put up 28 points on the overcast Saturday. Unlike the jamboree, we played on the full length of the football field. It was back to the football format I’ve been familiar with throughout life. We had down and distance marked, without punting, each team attempted four plays to make ten yards and a first down. If the first down attempt was unsuccessful, the football was turned over to the other team on downs. The kids seemed to become easily comfortable with playing on the full field. They kicked extra points for the first time. It’s more difficult to kick a football through the uprights than one might think. Without blocking from the opposing team, extra points were attempted after each touchdown scored. Upon each extra point made, we became excited along the sideline. My enthusiasm for a make was unexpected, but it was a new and unique challenge for our new-found kicker, which makes success exciting.
Even with a good performance, the game brought about teachable moments. They say coaches can always find something to work on, no matter how good things go. While still learning the nuances of football, sometimes I’m slow to recognize what could be improved. However, during the Eastside game it seemed clearly recognized. Our tackling technique could use some improvement. It seems strange to think about tackling based on our defensive performances to that point. We had shut out one team in the jamboree and giving up two pass plays to the second opponent of the jamboree, while scoring four times. Eastside Catholic had only scored 6 points, so we were playing good defense. But, something became clear as the Eastside game progressed.
Eastside Catholic had a couple big kids on their team. One of our kids came around the corner of the offensive line. He ran free into the back field meeting the ball-carrier straight on. His attempt to tackle the running back didn’t succeed. The running back from Eastside was twice the size of our talented linebacker. The collision sent our linebacker falling back to the ground, simply because he tried to tackle the running back too high. It’s difficult to bring down a bigger player when the tackling attempt is made arounds the waist. The shocking intersection of these two players shook up our linebacker. Seemingly more from an emotional stand point then a physical one. As other coaches came to his side, our linebacker didn’t seem to skip a beat. He was comforted and motivated to continue the effort, while being explained the proper way to tackle their running back. When colliding with someone bigger, it’s important to tackle low around the legs. By the end of our game against Eastside Catholic our linebacker had met their running back again. This time our linebacker was determined not to lose the battle. He went low on, tackling the big running back around his legs. The running back buckled, and tumbled like a tree, leaving the game not to return. Probably not because of injury, as from shock and surprise. He taught us all on that day how to persevere.
Tackling around the legs became a topic for practice the following week. The entire team worked on how to tackle a larger player. Our linebacker reminded us not to give up. When we continue to work hard after something doesn’t go our way, the opportunity can come around again. If we’ve heeded the advice of those around us and don’t give up, we can turn a tough lost into a success. Situations like our linebacker also helps my battle with cerebral palsy. It reminds me to keep fighting against the disability. CP is going to knock me down; the disability is going to win some battles in life. No matter how it might shake me up, it’s important to regain strength, learn the lessons from the shakeup, and keep fighting. When the opportunity comes around again, success can be gained.