Herding cats

“They look like a herd of cats.”

That’s what I thought as I ran around the track at Chaparral High School this morning while the freshman football team was practicing. Thirteen-year-old boys have notoriously short attention spans, and that is on full display at freshman football practices.

Many of boys still have baby fat on their faces, arms and legs — and almost all of them will grow several more inches and put on 20 to 40 pounds during the next two or three years. As the boys scrimmaged, the coaches did all the things that football coaches do to focus the attention of their players. They yelled, cajoled, encouraged and yelled some more.

As I ran around the track, I had two flashbacks. One was to 10 years ago, when my older son Andy and about 60 other boys were going through their first days of freshman football practice. They, too, wandered around like cats while the coaches strained to focus their attention on football and operating as a cohesive unit.

I then thought of a comment that a reporter friend made to me three years later, in December 2002. Andy and his teammates were seniors and the baby fat was long gone. They had just upset the defending state champions in the state semifinal football game in Tucson. They scored the winning points after a lengthy drive that ate up much of the clock in the fourth quarter.

“That drive began more than three years ago,” my friend said. He was referring to the thousands of hours of work the boys had put in together on the practice field and in the weight room since their freshman year. He was also referring to the fact that, during their lengthy game-winning drive, Chaparral had returned to plays from their freshman playbook.

With nerves, emotions and crowd noise running high, the coaches called the plays these kids had run hundreds of times during practice and games. These plays, which were now hardwired into Andy and his teammates, were the same ones they had stumbled through at the beginning of their freshman year. But they no longer looked like a herd of cats. They had become a team — and a week later they would win the state championship.

As I ran around the track, one of the freshman coaches starting yelling at a player for not paying attention to something. The coach got in the player’s face and told him to get off the field and stand on the sideline. I ran a few more laps around the track, and as I finished I walked past and caught the eye of the boy on the sideline, who was still a little chastened.

“Hi, Coach…I mean, Sir, how are you?” the boy said.

I was tempted to share what I been thinking about as I ran around the track, but thought better of it for two reasons. One, I didn’t want the coach to yell at him again for not paying attention. Two, there are just some things you have to find out for yourself. Adults often want to tell kids about the “big picture,” and I am often guilty of that myself.

Instead, I told him that both of my sons and many of their friends had played football at Chaparral and that it had been a great experience for them.

“When do you play your first game?” I asked.

The boy’s face brightened. “This Wednesday!”

I was tempted to expound on the fact that his first freshman game was the first step in a long journey toward becoming part of a real team, but feared I’d sound like a pompous blowhard.

Instead, I told him the only thing that most high school athletes want to hear, from their friends, family, teachers — or just some guy running around the track.

“I’ll come watch the game.”

SEPT 3 UPDATE:
Saw a spirited, if predictably sloppy, first game of the freshman football season Wednesday night between Boulder Creek and Chaparral. Boulder Creek won 27-26 after both teams scored touchdowns in the last 100 seconds of the game. There were some exceptional plays and lots of what let’s call “learning experiences” or “teaching moments” by both teams.

I watched the game with my friend, Dr. Steven Pitt, one of the country’s leading forensic psychiatrists. Steve’s son, Beau, plays left tackle for Chaparral, and Steve was trying to master the art of watching his son through binoculars while watching the rest of the players and talking with me and others as well.

From what I saw last night, Beau, who is already 6 feet and 170 pounds, has a far greater upside as an offensive lineman over the next four seasons than his dad has in manipulating binoculars. I look forward to watching the two Pitts develop their respective football skills. — Dan Barr

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