When football is family

Junior high football program builds respect and bonds between growing young men.

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The junior high football program wrapped up the 2017 season with a home-game win against Mashpee on Wednesday, Nov. 8, giving them four wins, two losses, and two canceled games for the year. But those statistics do not begin to portray what this 10-week program accomplished for members of the team.

When the young men of the Mariners football program are asked about the most important things they learned this season, the words teamwork, trust, brotherhood, empathy, integrity, respect, and confidence practically roll off their tongues. They also unanimously attached the word family to their experience. It is no surprise that the concept of family dominates the language of these athletes, because a large part of what this program instills in these young people is teambuilding and character development, according to Head Coach Zeke Vought.

Coach Vought says this approach is essential to creating the trust and responsibility necessary for a successful team. Family is a foundational teaching of the junior high football program and, with helmets raised, it is the last word heard at the end of every practice and game. For the Mariners, family means they work together, depend on each other, and share their struggles and successes. In these young athletes’ telling, the lessons instilled by Coaches Zeke Vought, Kyle Stobie, Jared Meader, Jeff Scheller, and Asa Vought leave a lasting impression both on and off the field.

Antone Moreis, an eighth grader who started playing in third grade with the current coaching staff, said, “The most important thing I’ve learned is that my team has always got my back; if I’m hurt, tired or made a mistake, they won’t give up on me, and that’s what I love most about the team. It’s like a brotherhood, and knowing that, while I’m in the field, I can just play my game and know that one of my teammates will protect me and I’ll forever do the same.”

As a sixth grader, this was Luciano Baldwin’s first year playing on the team, and he described it as an opportunity to improve himself and his game. “It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or experienced, everyone looks up to and supports each other,” he said.

Discussing his first year on the team as an eighth grader, Caleb Hatt poignantly remarked that being taught empathy was the most important thing he learned from his coaches. “[The concept of] empathy changed me a lot, because I have teammates at school that I hang out with now,” he said. “I didn’t before, because I was nervous to talk to them. Because of football, I’ve learned how kind they are, and how much they care about me.” Caleb recalled that “Coach Zeke would talk about inspirational things at the end of every practice, and he gave me one of the most important quotes of my life: ‘We win as a team, we lose as a team, and we suffer as a team.’”

That quote is deeply meaningful to Caleb, and with a voice thick with emotion, he talked about how he expects those words to stay with him for a long time. “That tells me that we all have the same importance,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are the quarterback, the running back, or the lineman, it just matters that we all have a part, and the team doesn’t work if we don’t all work together.”

Caleb’s mother, Julie Hatt, described the amazing transformation she witnessed in her young son over the course of the season. She felt so strongly about the work the coaches do on behalf of the team that she felt compelled to talk about what this program meant to her. Ms. Hatt said that although he played other sports, Caleb had yet to find his niche when she brought him to observe practice and a conditioning session about two weeks into the season. She credited Coach Zeke with walking across the field that first day to greet Caleb, intuitively reading him and what he needed in that moment, and piquing his interest enough to give football a try.

Watching that tough conditioning session, where kids were seen dry-heaving and crying, Ms. Hatt felt sure her son would not want to return. To her complete surprise, Caleb turned to her and said, “I think this could be a turning point for me, Mom.” Caleb showed up for practice the next day, and never missed another practice all season.

With emotion, Ms. Hatt described what she called life-changing developments in her son over the next few weeks. She noted a huge boost in his confidence, improvements in his relationships with peers, in his grades, and in his interest in working out and losing weight, which seemed to stem from Caleb’s sense of acceptance in his football family. “In spite of being pushed harder than he has ever been pushed, Caleb always came back wanting more,” Ms. Hatt said.“I don’t know what the coaches did or how they did it, but they taught Caleb to be a better person.”

Carol Brown-Meikle described the great experience her son Geovane had this year on the team. By season’s end, he had a greater awareness of his physical strength, and was also more confident. Michael Baldwin, parent of Luciano, talked about his initial reluctance to let his son play a contact sport, but he said his son “never gave up. He always came back from the practices and games thrilled to be part of something so promising.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed that football playing is only peripherally mentioned by athletes and parents when they talk about the Mariners football program. That fact is certainly no reflection on the safety and high quality of football coaching in this program, it is more a reflection of how embedded character development is in every technical correction, every new play learned, every push for an athlete to do more, or do better, and every time it is necessary to pull back and play with a little less force to prevent injury. Character and skill building are so entwined, they feel like one experience to these athletes.

Coach Jared Meader said he considers leadership to be the most important thing he instills in his players. He said teaching leadership shows that they can be strong, and at the same time compassionate, which helps his athletes be better prepared for the challenges and tests life is going to give them, by doing the right thing even when they think no one is looking.

Leading the coaching staff, Zeke Vought talked about his two seasons as head coach for the Mariners. “I coach because I see what it does for kids,” he said. “It’s good for everyone, but the ones who are really searching, they find what they need here.” Requiring a strong degree of discipline and structure, coaching football at this level also means considering the emotional needs of young athletes, and Coach Zeke said he is intentionally present for his kids, in whatever way they need. He feels that if “you fill a kid with confidence and you don’t beat them down when they fail, they eventually will live up to your expectations for them. I think people, and especially children, need more positive than negative feedback.”

Teaching respect and trust started early in the season, and Coach Zeke joked that when it comes to teambuilding, “I force them. I tell them at the beginning of the season, this is your family; these are your brothers. You disrespect this guy, why is he going to want to block for you? You’ve got to respect and trust everybody on your team, and the only way to teach that is to continue to say that. I tell them that they rise and fall as a team.”

By season’s end, no one needed to force these young men to trust and respect each other. It is clear this message has found its way into the fabric of the team, their football family, and it showed in their emotional responses after their last game. To look at their faces, these young men were clearly going to miss the strength of the family they built together, with trust, respect, empathy, leadership, and the brotherhood of football.

The world can be difficult to navigate for kids trying to find their place, but the Mariners football program seems to have found the right coaching strategies for teaching character traits alongside athletic skills, creating young men that can lean on the trust they develop in themselves and each other, and a place of belonging in the sometimes confusing world of middle school that these young men inhabit.