On Friday night, September 20, Judge Memorial Catholic High School of Salt Lake City downed the Union High School Cougars, 40-16. Football games played in rural Utah normally do not make news outside the local area, but this matchup on Union's home turf in Roosevelt (population: 6,100) attracted national attention for the post-game bombshell that Union head coach Matt Labrum and his staff dropped in the Cougars locker room.
The coaches assembled the team, suspended every player, and collected their uniforms.
The suspensions had nothing to do with winning or losing games, but plenty to do with respect, character and personal responsibility. The team's overall record stood at a respectable 4-5-0, but players were skipping classes, failing courses, and disrespecting teachers. The coaching staff also had good reason to believe that some players, using social media, were cyberbullying a classmate and daring him to kill himself.
The mass suspensions were "not about winning games," the coach told the dumbstruck players. The suspensions were "about developing young men to go on to be fathers and be positive community members and be employable." Fearing the sudden end of their season, some team members reportedly left the locker room in tears.
At a 7 a.m. team meeting the next morning, each player received a copy of a letter signed by every coach. "The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field," the letter said. "We want student-athletes that are humble to learn and grow through adversity and success on and off the field."
The letter went on to explain how the players could earn back their positions on the team. The players would not practice on the field for the following week's homecoming game, which was on the verge of cancelation anyway. Instead they would spend their classroom time and afternoon hours meeting the coaches' written expectations.
- Players would be expected to arrive on time for all classes, improve their grades, attend a two-hour study hall with schoolwork in hand, attend a character development class, and remedy discipline problems.
- After school, players would perform individual service projects for their families, perform a community service project such a pulling weeds and cleaning the campus, and visit with residents at local senior citizens centers. "These are our practices," Labrum told the Salt Lake City Tribune, "We're just practicing some different skills."
But that was not all. Each player would be required to memorize the following quote and recite it to a coach during the study hall: "Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast is not given to us. We have to build it, piece by piece - by thought, by choice, courage, and determination."
Nearly all Cougars met the coaches' requirements by Wednesday night. They received their black-and-gold jerseys in time for the homecoming game, which the team ended up losing two days later to the Emery Spartans, 41-21, dropping their overall record to 4-6-0. Their overall on-the-field record, that is.
"It's Not All About Football"
In hindsight, the Union coaches' initiative taught citizenship lessons that will last beyond the end of the players' football careers. One player acknowledged that "[w]e all grew as people and learned the meaning of service."
The lessons came with personal risk because youth coaches, like everyone else, must look forward and not backward when they make important decisions. When they threatened to cancel the homecoming game for reasons having nothing to do with the team's performance on the gridiron, second-year coach Matt Labrum and his staff took a chance, because Roosevelt takes football seriously. "The football game on Friday," says Union's athletic director, "is the only thing in town."
The coaching staff secured the advance approval of Union's principal (whose son played on the team), but parents could have resisted coaches whose discipline might jeopardize playing time. It takes only a few parents to undermine coaches, question their authority and motives, and even plot for their removal. Media reports indicate that a few Cougars parents initially appeared skeptical, but supported the coaches when they explained what they were trying to accomplish.
What about punishing the entire team? With more than 40 players on the Cougars roster, Labrum and his staff could not precisely identify the offending players. The coaches did not even try, though they knew that less than all were guilty. By suspending the entire roster, the coaches sent an important lifelong message that team units rise and fall together.
If the offensive line opens a hole for the fullback to scamper thirty yards into the end zone, for example, all 40-plus players benefit from the touchdown, even players who happened to be on the bench at the time. If the offensive line and the fullback create discipline problems, all 40-plus players suffer the consequences. As high school coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) told his players in the sports movie classic, "Hoosiers": "[O]ne single unit: team, team, team - no one [player] more important than the other."
What began in small-town Roosevelt, Utah late one Friday night quickly became a lesson followed by the media from coast to coast. The lesson, one player said later, is that "it's not all about football."
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Postcript: This column begins my fourth year writing on these pages about youth sports heroes. In November of 2010, the first column promised that each monthly entry would "salute a youth sports parent, coach, player or team for inspiring us by doing something special." "[E]ach ‘youth sports hero'," I wrote, "will motivate readers with values that set an example on and off the field."
Trying to deliver on these promises is a treat, beginning with the search for stories and ending with publication. Each uplifting story makes me feel good about the years I spent coaching youth hockey, and I hope that each story also makes readers feel good about their own service with the athletes who depend on them.
Distressing national and local headlines lead thoughtful adults to want something better from children's sports. Recognizing heroes each month counters these headlines with timely reminders that sports at any level can be noble or ignoble, depending on who is playing and how they play. In towns and cities large and small, in games and practices early in the morning and late at night, the choice is up to each of us.
Sources: Amy Donaldson, Union Coaches Hoped to Help Their Players and Became an Inspiration to People They've Never Met, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Sept. 28, 2013; Tyler Conway, High School Football Coach Suspended His Entire Team For Character Concerns (Sept. 26, 2013); Aaron Falk, Union Will Play After Coach Suspended Entire Team, Salt Lake City Tribune, Sept. 25, 2013). Union High School Cougars football coaches: Matt Labrum, Justin DeCol, Doug Harding, Jesse Fieldsted, Blake Fenn, Brady Arnold, Herman Sword, Don Busenbark, Dan Robinson, Tyler Osborne, Atlee Zipf, Monte Hawkins, Jason Kelly, Shaun Swiger, Cody Heinreich.