The Football Investment

Good times bad timesIn the next two days, everybody on the 12 Iowa high school football teams playing for championships is about to play the biggest game of their young lives. For 99 percent of those participating, it will be the biggest game they will ever play in. Everything they have worked for athletically for months – and even years – will come down to four more quarters.

After the game – after all the physical and emotional energy has been expended – there will be a release of emotions unlike they have ever felt before. One team and one fan base will feel the highest of highs and the other side will feel the lowest lows.

I was down on the field for all of the finals in 2010, and several since then, and couldn’t help but get caught up in the emotion every time. I did have connections with the teams I was following, but even after the games that involved other teams, the conflicting waves of joy and sadness inside the UNI-Dome were overwhelming.

I was at one of the Earlham playoff games this season with Kristen and near the end I said something about how hard it is on the kids to lose at this point in the season.

She asked me, “Do guys cry when they lose?”

I quickly reminded her how wet my shoulder got when I was hugging her after her team lost the softball title game two years ago.

“Well, yeah, but guys?”

I told her yes, guys have feelings, too. We just don’t generally like anyone to know it.

Madrid lost a championship in 2010 in one of the most compelling, gut wrenching games I have ever seen. This is what I wrote then:

Seeing uncontrollable tears flowing from several individuals on a team defined by its toughness and that had been so physically dominant all season may have seemed strange to some, but it served as a reminder that these are just kids playing a powerfully emotive game. These young men who play high school football are asked to give much of themselves and get nothing in return but the joy of playing. And in cases like this when all the joy has been sucked out of it, all that’s left is raw pain.

And Tiger Coach Randy Hinkel told me later:

“One thing I try to remind people is that when you invest a lot into something and it fails, it hurts more than if you didn’t. But these kids—and not necessarily our kids, but across the gamut—when they don’t achieve and they threw everything into it, it hurts. You see more emotion out of the kids that have invested the most.”

Yes. The game of football is a huge investment, and it hurts to lose. And it’s okay to let it out. As bad as losing feels, winning feels that good. It’s just much more fun to let those emotions loose.

Good luck to all the teams. To the winners – enjoy the moment. To the others – it’s okay to feel bad for a while. Then get back to work.


You Can Go Dome Again

domeI have a soft spot in my heart for all the teams I followed in 2010 when I was researching my book, and one of those teams made it back to the Dome this year. So naturally I’m pulling hard for the North Fayette Valley TigerHawks to bring home the 2A title. Take a drive through West Union or visit the school and it looks similar to a lot of Iowa towns and schools. There isn’t anything unique on the surface that might indicate the sustained excellence in football that they have achieved over the past three decades. What they have is a recipe of good people, good coaching, and a culture of winning. They expect to do well, they work hard, and they succeed. The good news for schools that have fallen short in their sports programs is that that recipe can be cooked up anywhere. The bad news is; it ain’t exactly as easy as all that. Some schools like North Fayette just make it look easy.

As big a fan as I am of theirs, it’s good to see that I am still revered in those parts, too – judging by this photo from 2010 that I found on their web site.

Go TigerHawks!

The championship dream is still alive for the 24 Iowa high school football teams that made it to the semifinals at the UNI-Dome. Action kicks off Thursday with the first 8-man matchup at the painfully early, and somewhat unusual, time of 9:06 a.m. Here are some more interesting facts about this year’s semis:

Six private schools are among the field this season. That’s down one from last year when seven made it. Last year private schools won titles in five of the six classes, but that won’t happen this year because in two classes (A and 8), only public schools remain. Two classes (3A with Heelan and Xavier; 1A with Regina and St. Edmond) have two private schools in the semis, setting up the possibility of a couple of all-Catholic school finals. (Regina and St. Ed met in the 1A final last season.)

These six private schools spend almost as much time in the Dome as the Panthers. Between them, they have been to the semifinals 14 times since 2010.

Ten of the 24 teams are back to the semis for the second year in a row, including four state champions. Two of those champs are in the same class this year so only three teams can repeat. 2013 Class A champ West Lyon was bumped up to 1A this season and could meet defending champ Regina in the final. The other two defending champions are Heelan and Dowling.

Regina is going for their fifth straight title, and even though the 1A field is rugged this year, it’s hard to bet against this juggernaut. (Betting for entertainment purposes only, of course!) Solon snapped the Regals’ gazillion game winning streak in week one, but their 2014 resume includes a 21-7 win over Xavier, class 3A semi-finalist this year and 4A runner up last year – not to mention the beatings they inflicted on their district foes. So in spite of their “down year,” Marv Cook’s guys will be tough to unseat.

Cinderella doesn’t usually make it to this dance – somebody shatters that glass slipper sooner rather than later. Among the 24, there are seven undefeated teams and 11 with only one loss.

But a couple of teams are intriguing, though they may not necessarily qualify for Cinderella status.

Newell-Fonda lost their first three games of the season and hasn’t lost since. Last Friday they upset defending 8-man champ (and owners of a 25-game win streak) Don Bosco, 37-36, to earn the trip to Cedar Falls.

With a similar script, Class A Denver lost four of their first six games and finished third in their district. They eventually upset previously unbeaten Maquoketa Valley in the second round, and then avenged a week 2 loss to district rival Nashua-Plainfield by beating them last Friday. They will be seeking revenge again in their semifinal matchup with Gladbrook-Reinbeck, who beat them 43-0 in week 4.

Good luck to all the teams – and let the games begin!

Getting What You Deserve

weightsWhile speaking about his football team at Earlham High School’s fall sports banquet last Sunday, Head Coach Chris Caskey stated very matter-of-factly that “we’re getting what we deserve.” After finishing third in their district, his team had won a first round playoff game the previous week and was getting set to play a team that was 10-0 the next night. His statement wasn’t self-congratulatory or boastful in any way. Just reality. All the off-season work by the players in the weight room was paying off. The team was reaping the rewards of good attitudes, solid practice habits, and the willingness to do what it takes to improve. Seniors and veterans were setting a good example and leading by doing while the underclassmen were not afraid to follow in their footsteps. Big moments in games were not intimidating. Everything was coming together at the right time. And they were getting what they deserved – and earned.

When they beat a previously undefeated team by two touchdowns on their home field in the rain on Monday, they also got a birth in round three of the state playoffs, one step away from playing in the semifinals at the UNI-Dome.

There are 47 other teams still playing high school football in Iowa that have similar scripts. None of the teams have gotten this far by being lucky or on “looks” alone – they have gotten what they deserve. They have done the work necessary and have played hard and smart. There are “underdogs” like Earlham and teams with gleaming undefeated records and an aura of invincibility, but they have all had to overcome difficulties and challenges along the way to get here. With grit and determination, star quarterbacks and special teams players alike have battled and defeated opponents and the elements; doubters and naysayers; pain and injury; fear and uncertainty. While they have been winning games together, the players have formed friendships and bonds that have strengthened their souls as well as their team. They are confident that no one can beat them now, but not too cocky. And they are having the time of their young lives – which is great, because they deserve it.

There are plenty of deserving teams whose season is over. Maybe they couldn’t out-work a lack of talent and depth or too many injuries; or maybe they could have dug down a little deeper and gotten more out of themselves. That’s left for them to consider and their coaches to contemplate. But that’s just how the world works – this isn’t six-and-under soccer anymore and not everybody gets a participation ribbon. Sometimes you fail to hit your goals and fall short of expectations, but you pick yourself up and keep trying. (And there are plenty of teams out there that finished with miserable records and they also got what they deserved this season. Enough said.)

But only six teams will be left standing a couple weeks from now in Cedar Falls, and they will each have gotten what they deserved.

The Fields of Fall