We had arrived at our final game of the season. A season which was unlike my first year of coaching junior football. In my first year of coaching we completed the season undefeated. Experiencing our first loss when playing for the championship. This year we were going into our final game without having experienced a win. The previous week had been a step forward, where the Jags had kept the game close. Scoring a touchdown in the final quarter to lose by just seven points. Keeping the score within reason felt like a victory for the year. So, going into our final contest, the feeling of possibility could be sensed. The team would travel to play North Seattle, who were playing to make the playoffs. Our day began under the threat of rain. All bundled up in layered warmth. I wore the raingear normally used for playing golf with the jacket used to ski. The goal was to stay warm and dry, without leaving much to chance. It had been a few weeks since having the chance to watch our kids play. Being engaged during many of the weekends, this year was spent helping out at practice. Hearing about the improvement of the prior week had me encouraged. Maybe a win was in our future and getting the opportunity to be there would be awesome.
Much of our year was spent working on fundamentals. The kids were struggling in most all of the games. One of our major concepts to work on was blocking. We had a challenging time understanding the idea. Blocking was also a concept I had something to learn about. In watching football for many years, I understood what it meant to block. However, the true technique was still foreign when our year began. A challenge involved with learning to block seems to be body positioning. The other crucial aspect was where to place your hand when delivering a block. The whole idea becomes moving someone out of the way. Clearing space for our running backs to have space to run. When blocking someone a player places their hands on the chest plate of the person they are blocking. Basically, grasping the front part of the opposing players shoulder pads. It was an action which happens pretty quickly as well. There wasn’t much time, and the hands had to be placed in the correct position. Then, once leverage was gained, pushing had to begin simultaneously. The dexterity required to perform the blocking movement continued to surprise. With cerebral palsy, performing a specific movement with the speed being ask, seemed challenging. It was something I would have lacked the coordination to execute.
Another challenging concept for our kids was learning to tackle. Tackling was something we began working on as our season started. Teaching the skill was a process. In the early days of August, during our early practices, the kids worked on tackling with bags. It was some of the most interaction I was able to have with our players. Holding the bags upright before they either took the bag to the ground, or lifted the bag to practice technique. Helping our kids learn to tackle taught me as well. I learned much about the tackling technique as we worked with our players. An important aspect of tackling was getting their head in the correct position. We needed them to understand keeping the head to the correct side and out of the way. Another crucial aspect was teaching them to keep their head up during contact. Having never played the game, it was challenging to understand the challenge of keeping the head up. There did appear to be a natural tendency to have the head down. So, coaches would hold up fingers as the kids tackled the bags to the ground. Each player was asked the number they saw during the tackle. It helped them learn keeping the head up during contact. It also helped us understand who might be struggling to remember. Keeping the head up during contact was an important safety aspect of tackling. The final idea of tackling was helping the kids learning hitting low on the opponent. The ideal target was the hip area of the person being tackled. Getting the kids to remain low enough to target the hips was something worked on the entire year.
During the week heading into the game, we continued spending time with the two concepts. Much of practice was spent working on offensive plays. Working on those plays provided the opportunity to also work on blocking. Our team spent most of the time on offense running the ball. The kids were still at an age where passing was challenging. Not only for our team, but most teams in the league ran the ball heavily. So, we needed to become as solid as possible blocking on the offensive side of the ball. It was crucial to providing running lanes for our running backs to move. The week of practice began showing small signs of better running opportunities. Standing on the defensive side of the ball, back in the safety position, gave me the perspective to see the gaps form. Our kids seemed to be popping through the offensive line more freely. Creating wider picture frames from my perspective, as a lead back would run through with the ball carrier trailing behind. They were getting to my area, where the safety would be playing, with seemingly more ease. The blocking was being executed better and hints of laughter were in the air. There became a feeling of building toward something. We only had one more chance at achieving the elusive victory.
With our time preparing just before the final game, these skills continued to be worked. We had about 90-minutes in a grass field before taking the field. The kids went through the offensive plays. Working through the blocking techniques we had spent much of the year practicing. This day would be our last chance to have everything come together. We took the fields under mild skies. The raining downpour I had dressed for didn’t come to fruition on this Saturday afternoon. The sun was making its presence known, as clouds continued clearing from above the field. It had reached the hour of our kids giving this thing one more shot. Our final game began differently than the others I had seen. Something was clicking with our kids along the offensive line, there was room to run. There appeared to be holes opening for the kids to run. We moved the ball down the field with more ease. The Jags scored once in the first half. A running touchdown that seemed to lift the spirit of everyone. Then, we scored another touchdown, giving us thirteen points. All of the sudden, we were involved in a tie football game, with an honest chance to win. Our defense only becoming more stringent, as there appeared to be light at the end of our tunnel. But then, mother nature.
We began the second half under clear skies. There hadn’t been a drop of rain all day. However, clouds lingered in the distance behind our side of the field. We couldn’t see the stormy skies. The third quarter was played much like the first half. The Jags continued moving the ball through our running. The defense was keeping North Seattle in check, when play suddenly came to a halt. The bank of clouds behind us had lit up with the strike of lightning. There was no clear way of knowing how close the strike was. The field had to be cleared of participants and play would be suspended 10-minutes. If there was another visible lightning strike, the clock would begin again. Requiring us to wait an entire 30-minute period without the sight of lightning. So, we cleared the playing surface and meandered about. Engaging in conversations with parents and friends. Doing our best to pass the time. But, another lightning strike sparked the sky, then ten minutes later another strike. By the third sight of lightning, it was getting late, and the game had to be called. Without a cloud directly above us, on a crisp fall night, we ended our final game in a tie.
The tie game didn’t feel as satisfying as a win probably would have. On the other hand, it did feel better than losing another contest. The kids had been playing great the entire game and all that was felt during the delay was a desire to continue. But, in my mind the story of our year remains the same. Through the difficult challenges of not winning a game, they didn’t give up. They showed up for practice, trying to improve on their skills, both individually and as a team. And during that cold, lightning shortened game, it was all coming together. There play on that night showed they weren’t willing to quit. The kids were being presented with one more opportunity to win and they worked for it. I left that field in the darkness feeling a strong sense of disappointment. They deserved the chance to finish the game that night. After all the struggle of a winless season. More than anything, I wanted to see the looks on those kids faces when they finally won. In my mind, they were playing together too well for another loss. This morning, my only thoughts are those of thankfulness. It was a blessing to interact with those kids for three months. The ups and downs of a challenging season probably taught us all something about perseverance. It just would have been nice to see them win! Thank you, 2019 North Creek Peewees!