This season both Mandarin and Raines made it to their state high school football championship games. While this weekend’s appearance in Orlando is a crowning achievement for those teams, it also marks a swift and sudden end to many players’ football careers.
“I know how special it is,” Mandarin Head Coach Bobby Ramsey said this week. “I tell my players, for almost all of you, this is the only time you’ll play 11-on-11 tackle football.”
There’s something different, almost magical that happens for high school boys playing football when they’re out there on the field. Just eleven guys, no coaches, no girlfriends, no parents, just those eleven players. The same thing happens for high school girls playing volleyball. There’s something about the rhythm of both games, the stop and go nature of the competition that breeds a closeness that doesn’t happen too often in other sports.
While high school boys become men and go onto other things, oftentimes they’re forever identified by their high school football careers. Especially if their team was successful. I occasionally get back to suburban DC where I went to high school and although I’ve been gone from there more than four decades I still get asked, “Are you the Sam Kouvaris who quarterbacked that ’73 Magruder team?”
Teaching and coaching blocking and tackling might be what the definition of the job of a “high school coach” entails, but that’s only part of the responsibility.
“I think if that’s not a big part of your belief system, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at this level,” Ramsey said about his responsibility as a high school coach.
“I have players from Yulee and First Coast who are friends of mine now. It’s nice when guys go away to college and you can tell what you taught them has helped them.”
“It’s about the relationships,” Deran Wiley, the Raines Head Coach said before the Vikings left for Orlando. “I had a player put his arms around me this week and say ‘Thanks Coach’ and I knew what he meant. It wasn’t about getting him to the State Championship game, it was about who he is.”
Both Wiley and Ramsey are proven, successful teachers of the game, but both admit if that’s the only reason you’re coaching high school football, you’re at the wrong level.
Wiley came to that realization after spending four years at Raines then two at Mandarin as an assistant before returning to the Vikings. He says it’s a staple of his decade-long head-coaching career.
“When I went to Mandarin, guys were calling me from the year before at Raines asking, ‘Hey Coach, what about this and that,” Wiley explained. “That’s when I realized they needed me for more than just football.”
“The personal development of it with the individuals is the thing you take the most satisfaction in,” Ramsey added. “These kids need you to help them. Something going on at home, how to shake somebody’s hand, how to walk into a room, the recruiting process, all of it.”
Jaguars’ players didn’t hesitate to explain what role their high school coaches played in their development, not just as football players, but also as people.
“My coach, Coach Crawford, he taught me a lot,” said Abry Jones who went to Northside High in Warner Robins, Georgia.
“I didn’t want to play football. I was cutting grass and doing yard work for my dad before going to eight grade in Warner-Robins and our neighbor came over and said, ‘You’re son’s kind of big, does he play football?’”
“I wasn’t interested but it was the hottest summer on record at the time in Georgia. My dad said, ‘If you go play football, I’ll never ask you to cut the grass again. So I went.” Little did I know we’d be standing on a field in the heat running and stuff at football practice.”
Jones says without his coach in both middle school and high school, he’s not sure he’d have continued to play and have the success he’s achieved.
“More of a mentor-mentee relationship,” Abry added. “He did everything for me. He’s the only reason I got recruited.”
Malik Jackson was eager to talk about his coach at Birmingham High in Los Angeles.
“A huge impact,” he said. “My high school coach is the one who got me to start drinking water when I get up. Helps with digestion. Taught me all kinds of things. Gave me a ride from practice, really took an interest in me as a person and encouraged me.”
“I’ve bought in more and more into developing self-confidence, self respect, self esteem,” Ramsey said of his growth as an assistant for three years and now eleven a head coach. “’Look big picture down the road,’ I started to think. ‘What can you do to help with that, who these kids become?’ Maybe we can help make a better generation of young men.”
“My Coach, Butch Goncroff taught me a lot about organization and discipline.,” Myles Jack said of his time at Bellevue High in Bellevue, Washington. “The way he ran practice, the way he conducted himself. When I got to college, I was ahead of a lot of guys because of Coach. He set me up to be successful.”
“I don’t know, my coach saw something in me I didn’t see.” Patrick Omameh said of his time at St. Francis DeSales in Columbus, Ohio. (Yes, he went to Michigan) “I was like second string JV and he promoted me to a starter on varsity. I thought it was crazy but he saw something. I’ve always been tall, but he really worked with me and helped me a lot.”
While the stereotype of a football coach remains the hard-nosed, gruff taskmaster, Wiley and Ramsey say the reality now is quite the opposite. Football is a hard game and you have to want to be there, but the two coaches who got their teams to the state championship this year know it’s more than just blocking and tackling, x’s and o’s.
“It’s really gratifying when you see these kids grow up and make something of themselves,” Wiley said.
“We talk about accountability, perseverance and responsibility,” added Ramsey. “You never know what’s going on. Players might be dealing with a lot of negativity in their lives. You have to step up and be available.”