As a high school football player and later as a coach, the July 4 holiday indicated a defacto end of summer frolicking. We didn’t totally avoid fun and family, but post-Independence Day was the time to start focusing on football. Getting serious about being in shape became a priority. In coaching, your vision had to be on how you would develop your team for the season. The calendar still said Summer, but your brain said Fall.
During this time of turmoil, I can’t help but think of fifty years ago. It was 1970 when schools in Georgia were about to desegregate. Those coaches had to be wondering how on earth they would develop a team. The heat of July meant the time was near when they must bring kids together who had never before been together. Forget the conditioning, the blocking and tackling, the Xs and the Os. The emphasis had to be on teamwork, which is about emotions and psychology, not physicality.
There must have been many coaches who did not have the background, personality or temperament for such a task. They would be asked to pull something off for which no textbook existed. Their only advantages were all being in the same boat and no cell phones with cameras and social media. Can you imagine 1970 with today’s technology? Coaches didn’t have to worry about innocent, routine directions morphing into “gotcha” moments.
What about those teenagers who would have to be molded into a cohesive unit? They would be led by men who they didn’t know or trust. They would become teammates with others who could not exactly be called their peers. Appreciating cultures other than your own was rare in 1970. They had one advantage. In that era, regardless of who you were, proving yourself by your work ethic was universally accepted.
What about the challenges facing high school coaches and players now? We thought that the paralysis created by a pandemic might be insurmountable. The virus will ultimately resolve itself, but the wounds created by recent social unrest have cut deep. How will today’s coaches and players navigate those scars? Will outside influences leave them alone and not interfere? Can impressionable young men resist the exploitation that may come by being in the spotlight of their high school team? These questions originated a half-century ago.
Those of us who were in school during desegregation thought we had seen it all. It was a great change and as much as any element of society, our local football teams thrived because of it. We refused to be victimized by our differences, choosing instead to unite because our team belonged to one community. We made that choice because playing ball together was the most positive thing we could do. Waiting too long had been costly.
We had enough in common in the 70s to develop some powerhouse football programs in this area that everyone relished. Today’s coaches may have to dig even dipper to rediscover that common ground. Antagonists will insist that there is no common ground, but I know better. The advantage that coaches have today is a simple one, its been done before. I’ve lived it. Now there is a textbook. We should all read it. More than a powerhouse team is at stake.
Gene Walker is a retired educator who lives in Thomson. His column, “Sports Talk,” appears in the weekly editions of The McDuffie Progress. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.