Could these possibly be the same guys who spent the summer sleeping until noon and whining about wheeling a few trash cans to the curb?
Talk about motivated. They pump iron, thump heads and jump to attention every time their coaches whistle while they work out.
Players and coaches alike realize that navigating a high school football season requires drive. “Go Hard or Go Home” read the T-shirts at one school.
Beware motivation’s maddening impermanence, however. When starting positions are set and homework and hot dates become impossible to ignore, staying hungry for pigskin becomes a constant challenge.
Tested will be the resolve of players who must remind themselves--and one another--of the sacrifices made and rewards that await.
Tested will be the imagination of coaches who must bust into their duffle bag of gimmicks for something persuasive, something distinctive.
The aim is to keep the fire blazing as the long season drags on, even if things get so bad cheerleaders wear T-shirts that read, “Football Is Not Our Only Sport,” as players at winless Burroughs found last year.
GETTING IN GEAR
“All motivation comes from within. It is virtually impossible to motivate somebody who has no interest in being motivated.”
-- Don Hutson, Motivational expert and cousin of Hall-of-Fame receiver
“For every pass I caught in a game, I caught a thousand in practice.”
-- Don Hutson, Hall-of-Fame receiver
Tyrone Crenshaw, Sylmar’s senior running back, reached the pinnacle last season, and he revels in it. City Section 4-A Division player of the year. City 4-A champion. Twenty-two touchdowns and 1,875 yards rushing.
Yet there he is, hustling through grass drills like some freshman praying that the coach will learn his name.
“I want to repeat as champion, I want to experience that feeling again,” he says. “It can only happen if we spend the extra time and devote ourselves.
“When I first came to Sylmar, I thought it was (hogwash), but now I know practicing hard pays off on Friday night.”
Taking a momentary breather, Crenshaw spies a player from a rival team saunter past the Sylmar practice field. He feels a burst of energy and kicks into an agility drill.
“We are out pushing and he is hanging with friends, probably going to look at some TV,” Crenshaw tells himself.
Fifteen miles away, the tongue of Canyon tailback Ed Williams is hanging because it’s 90 degrees and he’s lifting his knees. “Higher,” implores a shirtless coach gripping a bullhorn.
Williams, a senior, has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The secret, he reveals, is the four figures worth of yardage he churns out every day in practice.
“When it’s 80 degrees, you can go through that very intensely,” Williams says. “But when it’s 102 and things aren’t going your way, you must maintain the same intensity. That way, you are ready on game day. That way, you care.”
Being pushed in practice enables Williams to push himself when the Friday night lights are focused on him and the coach is calling plays instead of screaming through the bullhorn.
Williams, like Crenshaw, has learned that motivation begins the first moment of the first day of practice. It builds slowly, a tiny spark that grows into a raging flame.
Grasping the concept is as difficult for most high school players as grasping Crenshaw and Williams when they are carrying the football.
“Getting (players) to understand they are working toward a goal is a great challenge,” says Tom Harp, co-coach at Granada Hills. “When they understand that, it helps them motivate themselves.”
Once the idea of practicing diligently every day is understood, players must take action. They must do it.
“Instilling the frame of mind that we will not give in, not give up, play as hard as we can from beginning to end, is the foundation of the training regimen,” Littlerock Coach Jim Bauer says.
That point was hammered home to the Buena football team in memorable fashion at a practice two years ago.
During Coach Rick Scott’s closing remarks to the team, several players were discreetly peeling off shoulder and forearm pads, getting a head start on undressing. Scott reached his boiling point, but instead of verbally undressing his charges, he undressed himself, first taking off his hat and throwing it to the ground.
Next came his jacket, his shirt, even his pants. The sight of their coach in only his jock strap has not been forgotten at Buena. The story is passed down year to year, ensuring that Scott needn’t repeat the performance.
Also passed down is the message: Remain focused.
“How are you, young gentlemen? I have always admired animal acts.”
-- Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. president, upon being introduced to George Halas and Red Grange of the Chicago Bears
For all the meticulous preparation done in practice, a booster shot of motivation is necessary before a game.
And the imagination of a coach in search of an edge knows no bounds.
Who can forget the unsavory tale beneath the tail of Wild Willie, a steer castrated on the Mississippi State football field last fall. Coach Jackie Sherrill believed the stunt would fire up his team for its opener against the Texas Longhorns.
Postscript: Mississippi State beat Texas, 28-10, but Sherrill took a beating from the Humane Society.
Add postscript: Wild Willie was put to death two weeks ago after breaking his leg in a fall.
Although barbarous, at least Sherrill was forthright.
Grant Teaff, former coach of the Baylor Bears, once dragged a dead bear to practice, telling his shocked players that Texas A&M; students were responsible for killing the Baylor mascot. Baylor crushed Texas A&M; and only when Teaff began relating the story on the banquet circuit did he reveal that the bear had died of natural causes.
Area high school coaches, typically less desperate to win than a college coach with rabid boosters nipping at his heels, have not resorted to animal cruelty.
With one notable exception.
Rich Lawson killed a trespassing rattlesnake in his back yard a few days after beginning his first season as Chaminade coach in 1987. He skinned the snake and after a practice held the rattle skyward, relating an Indian legend that one takes on the spirit of an animal one kills.
Reveling in reptilian folklore, the Eagles slithered to a record of 11-3 and a Santa Fe League championship. The snakeskin remains pinned on Lawson’s office wall to this day.
Speaking of snakes, in the dead of night an area coach once spray-painted the name of a rival school on his own equipment shed so that his players would believe dastardly cross-town vandals had done the deed. Imagine!
Even a well-intended tactic can be ill-advised as mothers of Crescenta Valley players found before a game against Muir last season. The previous week, most Crescenta Valley players had shaved their heads in a show of unity, and the Falcons proceeded to defeat Glendale, 24-17.
Moments before the opening kickoff against Muir, the moms descended from the stands onto the field wearing shower caps in an ill-conceived expression of bald and bold unity with their sons.
The Falcon players turned crimson from their chins to the crowns of their hairless heads, and, thoroughly distracted, fell hard to Muir, 27-0.
Crescenta Valley benefited, however, from a touch of motivational genius from assistant Dan DeMombrum last season before playing rival Hoover. The winner traditionally keeps a helmet as a perpetual trophy until the next season’s game. After Hoover defeated Crescenta Valley in 1991, a Hoover player dashed across the field and snatched the helmet from the Crescenta Valley athletic director before it could be properly presented.
The incident was captured on video and was replayed by DeMombrum last season moments before the team boarded the bus to Hoover.
“We all were quiet, he shut off the film and said, ‘Let’s get on the bus,’ ” recalls David Fielder, the Crescenta Valley quarterback. “You could feel the animosity.”
Crescenta Valley beat Hoover, 46-0.
“The film looks suspiciously like the game itself.”
-- Bum Phillips, Former NFL coach
A multimedia approach--music, videos and classic chalkboard material--often is employed by the contemporary player seeking a spark.
The way technology is advancing, in another 10 years virtual reality will transport high school players anywhere, say into the Green Bay Packers’ locker room at halftime of Super Bowl II. They can hear Vince Lombardi’s impassioned speech informing his players that this game would be his last as their coach. The emotionally charged Packers trounced the Oakland Raiders, 33-14.
The players will return to literal reality, whereupon whipping the school across town will be a breeze.
And to think, Lombardi figured that by definition the win-my-final-game speech could be used only once. Instead, it might inspire players for generations.
Today, however, players must content themselves with music, highlight films and advertising slogans of apparel manufacturers, such as the popular “No Fear.”
“I listen to fast music, heavy metal like Metallica and Suicidal Tendencies, music that makes you want to kill,” says Buena’s Brian Williams, a three-year starter at tackle. “Then I’ll watch a video like ‘NFL Crunch Course.’ ”
Franklin Saunders, Chaminade’s standout running back, listens to techno music because he says it puts him in a robotic state of mind, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.”
The music stopped last year at Burroughs, though. “There was a radio that had been in the locker room for years, it was a tradition to listen to music when getting dressed for practice,” says Jason Arnold, the team’s quarterback last season. “But a new coaching staff came in and cut that off.”
Many teams encourage a period of solitude. The Granada Hills squad sits in total darkness before games and doesn’t make a sound.
“Getting motivated is not only fire,” says Williams, the Buena lineman. “I also give myself one full hour of mental quiet.”
Coaches at parochial schools often set aside time for reflection. “Playing football is a gift God allows us to do,” says Lawson, Chaminade’s coach. “From a spiritual standpoint we have an advantage over public schools, another chance to bond.”
Bill Redell, a veteran coach who is beginning his first year at St. Francis, added family values to the usual mix of music and film when he took the reins of a downtrodden Crespi program in 1982.
“We watched highlight films, we played college fight songs, and before the first game I had all the parents in the dressing room with their sons,” says Redell, whose team won the opener and went 6-4 after being 0-9-1 the previous year. “It was an emotional time.”
A sure-fire method of stoking emotions is for opposing players to make disparaging comments. The remarks, real or imagined, often find their way to a copy machine.
“Some guy sitting behind one of our players at the burger shop says we’re gonna lose by 40 points, you kind of grab onto that,” Rio Mesa assistant George Contreras says.
“And when something like that is in print, it really gets kids fired up. We’ll take it, blow it up real big and tape it to the locker room door leading out to practice.”
Not exactly subtle, although Contreras is capable of a less obvious approach. He was the Westlake coach a decade ago when Newbury Park regularly had its way with the Warriors. In December, after a season that included still another loss to the Panthers, Contreras wrote a number in the corner of the blackboard: 288.
Each day, the number was reduced by one. After several months, a player told the coach, “I know what that number means.” Contreras merely nodded and subtracted one from the number.
When the day of Westlake’s game against Newbury Park rolled around the next season, the countdown had been completed. That night, Westlake’s drought against the Panthers ended.
CARROTS AND STICKS
“An automobile goes nowhere efficiently unless it has a quick, hot spark to ignite things. So I try to make every player feel he’s the spark keeping our machine in motion.”
-- Knute Rockne, Legendary Notre Dame coach
Making every player on a team of 40 or so believe he’s the ignition switch is a daunting challenge. Of course, they don’t make ‘em like Rockne anymore.
High school coaches introduce short-term reward systems that are reasonably fair to all players. Handing out helmet decals and weekly awards to more than only the top performers is common.
“Kids want to be part of something,” says Scott, the Buena coach. “If you offer something that makes them feel good about themselves, they will be motivated to join. We give every player a T-shirt and every senior another T-shirt with a team logo on it. We have a family barbecue.
“If players think they are being treated fairly and have a chance to contribute, even if it’s only as part of the scout team, then being part of the football team is a privilege.”
Nothing saps a player’s energy more than realizing that regardless of effort, he’ll take the field less than the girls who fetch water bottles during timeouts.
“No matter who you are, the top guy or the low guy, we all mean the same, we all have respect for each other,” says Jeremie Watkins, Simi Valley’s starting quarterback after rarely playing behind Eric Bennett last season.
Establishing statistical goals can motivate players week to week. Competition within the ranks keeps performance high, as countless sales managers have learned.
“We have 10 measurable goals each game, everything from gaining 135 yards rushing and 165 yards passing to holding kickoff returns inside the 25-yard line,” says Redell, the St. Francis coach who also is an insurance executive.
Players at Rio Mesa fill out a questionnaire in spring practice, listing team and individual goals, and naming the opponent they most dearly wish to defeat.
“Some games weren’t listed by a single player as being important,” Contreras says. “We know we will have to motivate players extra hard for those games.”
Extra hard no longer always means loud or demonstrative. School administrators and parents are increasingly intolerant of the use of profanity and manhandling tactics by coaches. Grabbing a face mask to gain undivided attention, known as ragdolling, is taboo.
“Society has changed, not kids,” says Harry Welch, the Canyon coach of 12 years. “Classic ragdolling has almost disappeared; society doesn’t accept it as readily. I’ve heard of lawsuits against teachers and coaches for mental abuse and verbal abuse.”
The ethics--as well as the effectiveness--of using fear to motivate are questionable.
“When you start operating at that level, you are not taking care of young people, you are taking care of yourself,” Channel Islands Coach Joel Gershon says. “You might get immediate results, but our responsibility as coaches is to see the bigger picture, not just winning on Friday night.”
Do coaches who once behaved like thugs now dole out hugs?
“You must have a coaching staff that kids know genuinely care for them as a person,” Redell says. “We have an unwritten rule, when we get on a kid, we won’t let him go home without letting him know we care about him. When they know that, they play harder.”
And they walk off the field after a game to greet friends and family knowing that for a few hours they were bold and fearless.
“Kids are as easily motivated as they always have been,” Gershon says. “They are looking for the same things, acceptance and trust. They want to revel in the moment where they responded to a situation they weren’t sure of in a courageous way.”
THE GIPPER REVISITED
“A head coach is guided by this objective: Dig, claw, wheedle, coax that fanatical effort out of the players. You want them to play as if they were planting the flag on Iwo Jima.”
-- Darrell Royal, Former University of Texas coach
Seeking to inspire his team, the charismatic coach gives a rousing speech, eliciting tears and sending his players on the field in a frenzy, ready to walk across hot coals like the folks leaving a Tony Robbins seminar.
Pep talk, fact or fiction?
Does a great pitch raise performance to fever pitch, or does it produce at best the motivational equivalent of a sugar high?
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d cry, my coaches would cry, the kids would cry, but the first time you get your nose shattered all over your face, the emotional pregame talk doesn’t mean do-do,” Redell says.
Although the effect of a pep talk won’t sustain a team through 40 minutes, a temporary boost might be better than none at all.
“Some people say a motivational speech is nothing more than hype,” says Hutson, the motivational expert. “The effect may not last, but neither does the effect of a bath. It’s still a good idea.”
The emotional message must be genuine, however.
“You have to be yourself. If you say something contrived, kids see through it right away,” says Bauer, the Littlerock coach.
The weekly dose from the coach is often supplemented with motivational words from players, typically key seniors. Rio Mesa upset Royal in the first round of the Southern Section playoffs in 1991 after the Spartan players were left alone during their stretching routine.
“The senior leaders started talking, one after another, just building a great feeling,” says Mike Contreras, a sophomore defensive back at the time. “I remember feeling there was no way we could lose.”
The big game is about to begin and you must be psyched up, not psyched out. You want focus, not hocus-pocus, to pull off an upset or win a championship.
Let’s zoom into a few dramatic yet authentic scenes:
* Cleveland 17, Banning 14 in the 1987 City 4-A playoffs: The game at Banning was played in a downpour and at halftime Cleveland was not provided with locker room facilities.
The Cavaliers cavalierly barged into Banning’s quarters.
“We figured there might be a fight, but we said, ‘Here it is, we’re not gonna stand in the rain,’ ” recalls Steve Landress, Cleveland’s coach at the time.
Banning coaches and players became quiet, more embarrassed than angry about the intrusion.
“It upset them,” Landress says. “And we gained the upper hand.”
* Canyon 33, Santa Maria 6 in the 1984 Northwestern Conference final: Although it poured the entire week, Welch, the Canyon coach, promised his players it would not rain during the game. Rain fell until the team began to descend the steps from the locker room to the field at College of the Canyons.
Then the sky abruptly cleared. One by one, the players looked around, all thinking the same thing: “This was meant to be.”
Welch confides that had it continued to rain, he held a motivational card up his sleeve: “How dare it rain!” he would have exclaimed.
* Sylmar 17, Carson 0 in the 1992 City 4-A final: Moments before the game, Obbie Brown, Sylmar’s offensive coordinator, made an impassioned plea, telling the team this was the pinnacle of his career, the first time he’d been in a City final. He might never get here again, he said, and neither would the seniors.
“He cried, then we all broke down and cried,” says Crenshaw, the Sylmar tailback. “It motivated a lot of the seniors.”
At halftime Coach Jeff Engilman took a firmer approach with fullback Ibn Bilal, who had been shut down in the first half, giving him the terrifying Tomato Face--the team’s term for Engilman’s mug when it turns a vibrant, violent red.
“I read him the riot act, saying I thought the Carson mystique had taken its toll,” Engilman recalls. “Instead of a dull look, his eyes flashed at me. I truly angered him.”
Bilal came out and had “one of the best halves I’ve ever seen from a football player,” Engilman says.
The secret? Maybe it’s in the water, be it rain or tears.
More likely, the painstaking preparation, the enormous investment of time and effort made by each player and coach, gradually became a motivational force that could move mountains.
Or at least make for a worthwhile season.