Playing By The Rules

By David Ruenzel — November 01, 1994 28 min read

Among tough river towns, Pekin, Ill., has a reputation for being one of the toughest--the kind of place where saying the wrong thing can get you into a fight. Located on the east banks of the Illinois River across from archrival Peoria, Pekin is most notoriously known as a former stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Even now, there are occasional reports of nightriders and cross-burnings, and many blacks won’t venture there after dark. Until the mid-1970s, Pekin High School’s nickname was the politically incorrect “Chinks.’' Now, it’s the “Dragons,’' but at Friday night football games you can still see older fans wearing sweat shirts declaring, “Proud to be a Chink,’' or “Proud to be a Chinklet.’' The dropout rate at the high school is 25 percent, and students say the Gangster Disciples--a crack-cocaine ring of Chicago origin--has made inroads at the school.

Pekin may have an ornery reputation, but you would never know it by looking at the 150 football players seated at tables in the school cafeteria. They are so clean-cut and studiously attentive that the meeting could be a convention of young Southern Baptists. They’re about to go through what one coach calls “detoxification.’'

“You’ve got to get society out of them,’' he says, “the society that tells kids to pretty much go ahead and do what they want to do.’'

The meeting begins without preamble. “Turn your chairs around, all eyes on me,’' orders head coach Dale Patton, and the players do exactly that. Chairs, scraping and squeaking, are hastily repositioned, and then there is quiet. “The next 45 minutes are the most important of the season,’' the coach tells them. “If you freshmen think you’ll get distracted, you can get up and leave right now. Otherwise, make sure you give me your complete attention.’'

Smartly dressed in a white polo shirt and khaki shorts, coach Patton could be an investment banker ready for an afternoon of golf and cocktails at the club. He’s so handsome and polished--and a bachelor at the age of 36--that a rival coach jokingly refers to him as “a yuppie.’' But at this moment, there is no mistaking Patton’s absolute seriousness. With an almost Solomonic intensity, he enumerates the rules that will guide his Pekin High School football team. His players will never miss or be late to practice. They will never walk onto the practice field. They will never curse, on or off the field. (“Football is not a gentle game,’' he tells them, “but gentlemen can play it.’') They will always look coaches directly in the eye and address them with “Yes, sir’’ or “No, sir.’' They will never pout. (“Keep your chin off your chest and your head held high.’') They will never draw an unsportsmanlike penalty during a game or taunt an opponent. (“If an opponent does something ‘bush league,’ just knock his block off the next play.’') They will never hang around with a bad crowd. And, most important, they will never act like fools but treat all people with courtesy and respect.

“You are role models,’' Patton asserts, hooking one pair of eyes after another as he scans the rows of players. “If 4th graders see you acting like idiots, it will affect them.’'

Among the prohibitions are some inducements, too. First and foremost, they must fight off selfish feelings, always putting the team first. “The more tolerant we are of our teammates,’' Patton says, “the more family we are. And the more family we are, the better we are. We can’t fail if we don’t worry about who gets the credit. Always be humble and generous in praise of other teammates.’'

Patton concludes this first team meeting by reminding the freshmen and sophomores to be particularly respectful of the seniors, who have earned the honor after three years of struggle. Then he dismisses everyone but the seniors, instructing the underclassmen to tuck their chairs under the tables.

Alone with the seniors, he tells them that last year they weren’t enough of a family. “The season is so short and flies by so fast that you’ll regret any selfishness for years down the road,’' he says. “This is an important part of your life, and you don’t want to blow it. You do exactly what we tell you to do, and you’ll be in great shape. Understand?’'

“Yes, sir,’' the players respond in unison.

When they, too, are dismissed, the cafeteria quickly empties. Not a single wrapper is left on the floor, and the rows of chairs are perfectly arranged under the tables. There is no sign that a meeting has ever occurred.

As a reporter and former teacher who frequently visits schools around the country, I have long marveled at the way students treat certain coaches with respect, even deference, while approaching their teachers with cranky indifference. How, I’ve often wondered, do coaches manage to inspire commitment and high performance from the very kids who seem to frustrate schools and teachers with their inattentiveness, insolence, and laziness?

I once thought that this dedication simply had to do with the nature of athletics. Students, harnessed all day in closed classrooms, “run wild’’ on the playing fields. But this explanation now seems insufficient. Successful athletes, after all, do not run wild but are highly disciplined. Furthermore, they endure intense pain, particularly in football, where smaller athletes regularly receive punishing blows from bigger, stronger players. And while the quest for victory and personal glory may offer some explanation for their efforts, this, too, provides only a partial answer. Some of the hardest workers are ordinary athletes who rarely even play in the games. Helmeted and sitting on the bench, they exist--as far as the crowd is concerned--in perfect anonymity.

There has to be something about the relationship between coaches and players that motivates. But what is it exactly? And is it something classroom teachers could develop with their students? Under what conditions would student-athletes work as hard for their teachers as they do for their coaches?

In search of some answers, I decided to talk with a number of coaches and players in several Central Illinois towns where high school football is still the chief Friday night entertainment. Pekin seemed like a logical place to begin an exploration of the effects coaches can have on sometimes recalcitrant adolescents; before Patton’s arrival in 1986, Pekin’s players had a reputation for losing the games but winning the street fights afterward.

As an all-state quarterback and four-letter athlete at a high school in a small Illinois town, Patton had nourished dreams of becoming a professional football player. But when realism set in--he realized while playing football at tiny Millikin University that he lacked certain physical assets--he knew that he would become a teacher, which is what he considers all good coaches. “There are tremendous parallels between coaching and classroom teaching,’' Patton told me. “In the classroom, as on the football field, you must be strict the first few days, establishing a framework for discipline. You can always ease up a bit later on. The important thing is to teach kids the importance of following certain steps and eliminating mistakes. If they do that, they’ll succeed.’'

Patton, who has taught both science and physical education, also spent five years teaching in a program for potential dropouts. “We did whatever it took to motivate these kids,’' he said. “We’d be strict with them, laugh with them, relax with them. We’d show them an Eddie Murphy film for a reward if that was going to work. I enjoyed it, and I think the kids did, too.’'

Patton grew up in a family of public school teachers. Listening to his parents and their friends talk about their daily lives working with kids--"the real stuff of education,’' he explains, “not just theory’'--Patton came to believe in a philosophy that sounds almost disconcertingly simple: that you could accomplish almost anything with students if you set high standards for behavior and performance by which you yourself abided. Unlike the stereotypical football coach, Patton (and his staff) will not curse, grab face masks, throw clipboards, or yell at officials. For Patton, maintaining control over one’s emotions is almost a religion. He is contemptuous of the broader society, which he feels values displays of excess and flamboyance over substance.

Seated in his office, which adjoins a steamy locker room, he explained how this affects his coaching. “I’ve always believed that deep down, kids are starving for discipline because they know on an intuitive level that they can’t accomplish anything without it,’' he said. “It sounds like a cliche but it’s true. So if I hear kids talking back to their parents--telling them on the phone that they’d better pick them up at such or such a time--I let them know that’s unacceptable. And if I see that a kid has a chip on his shoulder--you can always tell by the body language--I get right on him. ‘Get your eyes open, look at me,’ I tell him. I always insist on direct eye contact.’'

Eight years ago, when Patton arrived in Pekin from a Catholic school with a winning tradition, he was told that a highly disciplined approach could not work with Pekin kids. Although the high school enrolled 2,400 students--the biggest school in its conference--the team had endured 11 losing seasons in 14 years. Worse, some thought, the players evidenced an attitude of nasty indifference. Hair hung from the backs of their helmets, and they sometimes taunted their opponents after the whistle. Penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct were common. Spectators in the stands could sometimes hear the players cursing on the field.

“At the first team meeting, I walked in and recited a list of new rules,’' Patton recalled. “We thought we were going to lose half of the kids, but they responded to the new code of ethics and discipline extremely well.’'

Appearances, though, were somewhat deceiving. The last week of Patton’s first season, a couple of players informed him that there was, among the players, a rampant problem with drugs and drinking. The next day, Patton grouped the players together up in the stands and told them that he knew what was going on. Was there anyone who was willing to step forward and take their punishment? The captain stood up and walked down. He was followed by a couple more players, and before Patton knew it one after another came walking down the aisle, like a televised religious conversion. Patton told those still in the stands that they needed to talk to their parents about what they should do and that it was strictly their decision as to whether they turned themselves in. The next morning, 10 more players came forward.

“We told all of these kids at lunch the next day that they would not be permitted to play their last game,’' Patton related. “It got extremely emotional. But then something amazing happened. The players who had turned themselves in talked to those who hadn’t and said, ‘How can you possibly go out there on the field when you’ve done what you’ve done? Take your punishment like men.’ Well, it turned out that three-fourths of the kids on the varsity team were suspended, so we had to bring up sophomores to play that final game with the suspended players watching in street clothes on the sidelines. The whole thing turned out, in the long run, to be a positive experience that turned our whole football program around. Kids realized that we were not going to compromise on our principles, and they respected that.’'

Since that tumultuous first year, the Pekin football team has been winning with regularity. In 1988, the Dragons won eight games, making it to the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs. And in 1991, the team went undefeated through the regular season, winning the conference championship for the first time since 1966. Patton has a record of 46 wins and 24 losses.

But winning, Patton believes, is merely a byproduct of a commitment to the timeless virtues of unselfishness, perseverance, and courage. These virtues, if assiduously practiced, will stay with that player for the rest of his life. “We want our freshmen to believe that after four years in our football program, they’ll be much better people,’' Patton said. “Because it’s true.’'

The notion that high school football builds character is an old one, having taken root in the early years of this century, when prep sports programs were developed as a way of channeling male aggressiveness into supposedly constructive ends. Because football demands that players function as cogs in a well-oiled machine, the idea was that the game would chisel away at the rough edges of individuality, that players, more and more of them immigrants, would learn to abnegate their egotistical impulses for the sake of the common good.

Football, then, became the quintessential American high school sport because it embodied, in part, the myth of the melting pot. As one coach told me: “When you strap on [the pads], everyone’s the same. No one’s rich or poor, ugly or good-looking, smart or dumb.’'

But critics of high school football find the character-building notion absurd, even quaint. They claim that football aims not to tame selfishness but to annihilate individualism in the quest for conformity. Football, they argue, emulates the worst aspects of the old factory model of schooling, in which discipline is equated with a submission to authority. And they say the winning-is-everything mentality has too often conveyed to young athletes that almost anything--cheating, cutting classes, injecting steroids--is permitted in the quest for victory. Stars, fawned over by parents, peers, and pretty girls, develop hero complexes and get away with everything from grade-fixing to sexual assault.

In his devastating 1989 book Friday Night Lights, H.L. Bissinger tells the story of a year he spent with the high school players and coaches in football-crazed Odessa, Texas. The author describes a team and community so obsessed with winning at all costs that any talk of molding good character sounds farcical. Students breeze through courses in Food Science so they can concentrate on football. A star African-American player, once injured, is described by a former teammate as “just another nigger.’' After games, players let off steam by drinking beer until they pass out or find themselves in fistfights.

But Bissinger’s bestselling, well-researched book is an account of excesses in a wayward program and not the final word on high school football or football coaches.

One day, after a sweltering Pekin practice, I met in the stands with Jason Sirotak, a senior quarterback with a 3.4 grade-point average, who listed his priorities as “God, football, family.’' Football, he said, has taught him to work harder than he ever thought he could and has given him the confidence to exert leadership. “My role models,’' Sirotak unhesitatingly asserted, “are my father and coach Patton. Coach Patton demands so much respect, and he gets it because we know he won’t let us down. He cares about kids and wants to see us become better people.’'

“But what about teachers?’' I asked. “Don’t you have similar relationships with any of them?’'

“In all my time at high school, I’ve never had a teacher whose respect I cared to gain,’' he said. “I’ve never cared about working hard for a teacher. All I really care about is grades because for me doing well in school is just taking care of business.’'

Other players, all of whom unfailingly addressed me as “sir,’' echoed Sirotak: Football meant everything to them, school little. Their coaches are their heroes, their teachers little more than room monitors with a textbook. “School’s pretty important, but I don’t value it,’' one player said. Another added, “One of the things we learn out here is that school’s as important as football because we have to stay eligible in order to play.’'

When I asked a group of players if they ever felt the kind of excitement about classwork as they did about football, they all laughed at what I supposed was the transparent stupidity of my question. “If I ever get an A on a test or something,’' someone finally offered.

These players spoke about their coaches the way devout churchgoers speak about their clergy. The coaches, they said, were like their fathers in some ways; in fact, one athlete added to assent from the others, “I respect them more than my parents.’' They could, they claimed, talk to the coaches about anything: turmoil at home, a problem with a teacher or girlfriend.

“Sir,’' senior tackle Chris Howler interjected, “these guys are out here working with us two hours a night every night. They teach us that in order to be successful, there are things you must do as opposed to what you want to do. Those who didn’t get that message dropped out their freshman or sophomore year. They work with us to make us better people. Teachers, on the other hand, are with us just 45 minutes a day. They want to get us out of class so they can go home.’'

“I think the most important thing they’ve done is earn our respect,’' running back Brett Johnson said of his coaches. “When we perform poorly, they don’t give up on us but work with us over and over again until we get it right. They try for us, so we try for them.’'

The praise began to sound excessive. But even Jim Houston, a former star wide receiver who had been booted from the Pekin team for, among other things, trashing a nativity scene, was effusive in his praise when I met him at the stadium where he was once cheered by 5,000 fans. Wearing the earrings and long hair he was forbidden to wear as a player, the 20-year-old Houston, who described himself as someone who would drink a six-pack of beer and want to fight everyone, said he and Patton were good friends and remained so even during the worst of times. “I’ve grown up a bit from the time I did all that childish stuff,’' said Houston, now a law enforcement student at a junior college. “It was me and only me who screwed up, and I regret it totally because I could be playing college football right now.

“I respect the hell out of Patton,’' he added, “and there’s not a person who plays for him who doesn’t. He’s so intense and intimidating. Even when I was acting up and thinking myself tough, he scared me to death. My problem was that he wanted me to be a football player throughout the year, and I wanted to be one only during the season. He just won’t let his players look bad in the community, and it was my fault that I didn’t abide by his standards.’'

Why did these athletes respond so enthusiastically to their coaches and football but so indifferently to their teachers and schoolwork? Some of it undoubtedly had to do with the visceral nature of the game itself: Certain kids thrive on the violence of the sport, which Patton described as a “controlled frenzy.’' But this alone did not explain the players’ devotion to a game that frequently caused them pain.

Among local coaches famous--or infamous--for inflicting pain was Ron Butler, whose Richwood High School team in Peoria won the state championship in 1989. The Richwood football coaches have a notorious reputation for conducting practices the way Marine sergeants run boot camp; a Pekin coach praised them for “turning kids into robots.’' And when I visited Butler at his home, he fully looked the part of Marine commander. Newly retired and in his 50s, the broad-shouldered and thin-waisted Butler, a close friend of Patton’s, looked as if he could knock off a hundred push-ups on the spur of the moment. A wry sense of humor countermanded his rugged appearance. With a chuckle, he described his friend Patton as “a liberal’’ and spoke of himself as “to the right of Rush Limbaugh, though some thought me and my staff to the right of Attila the Hun.’'

Butler said there were many things about football that were barely tolerable, even to those who loved it. “You’re asking a kid to learn a massive amount of information under extremely adverse conditions,’' he explained. “In August, it’s 95 degrees and humid; in December, he’s freezing to death. And think of offensive linemen; all they ever see is a glimmer of the ball, a brown thing they see from the corner of their eyes 10 feet away. They don’t catch it and barely see it. I constantly marvel at the dedication of these kids, especially the ones who are never going to start and play.’'

I had been told that Butler and his staff rode kids with a ferocious intensity, and Butler acknowledged that this was true. It was often necessary, he said, to “get in kids’ faces.’' But he quickly qualified this statement. “There is a line between discipline and harassment that a coach must not cross,’' he said. “I can coach you, push you, scream at you, but there’s a point where it becomes a personal vendetta. That’s when the coach is thinking, ‘I’m pushing you because you’re screwing me up, keeping me from winning.’ So you can take discipline right to the edge, but if a coach’s motivation is wrong, it becomes an abuse of power.

“Still, I believe in St. Vince,’' he said, referring to Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. “You must get in a guy’s face when he’s had ample opportunity to learn something. You can’t get on them hard early; we’re much gentler with freshmen and sophomores. But there comes a point when you have to call them on it.’'

But if playing football is so torturous, then why do kids participate? The sport is, after all, completely voluntary. I asked Butler if it’s because they so desperately want to win. He shook his head. “Winning--and this is central to my philosophy--was never discussed on the football field in any way, shape, or form. People say you have to have goals, but we never did in terms of winning or losing. Honestly, I don’t ever even remember saying the word. Worrying about winning or losing is like taking a test and thinking, ‘I hope I get a 92.’ If you’re focused on the result, then you’re not concentrating on what you need to do to get that grade.’'

This point--namely that winning or losing is almost irrelevant--was iterated by many other successful area coaches. Jerry Donahue of Notre Dame High School in Peoria, who described himself as “an ultraconservative who grinds the kids pretty good,’' was downright disdainful of the emphasis upon winning, though he has won consistently over his 10 years of coaching. “The scoreboard,’' he said, “has nothing to do with success. When you can live with yourself by knowing that you’ve given everything you have to give, that you’ve fulfilled your responsibility to others, then you’re a success.’' Donahue felt that the playoff system was partially responsible for the distorted emphasis upon winning. Too many students and parents lost interest in a team that lost its early games and was, therefore, eliminated from the playoffs; this was wrong because improvement was the true measure of success.

Butler and the other coaches agreed that teenagers happily endure the rigor of football because of the comradeship the athletes experience as they participate in a shared struggle. It is essential, they said, that young people feel they belong to something larger than themselves, especially at a time when more and more of them come from broken families and communities under siege. But even more important, the coaches insisted, is the unmatched sense of accomplishment the players feel as they are pushed and prodded to perform better than they ever thought they could. This is particularly true of football, they said, because it is a sport in which pure athletic ability is insufficient. To succeed, young athletes have to overcome the natural fear of violent collision. And they have to perfect certain techniques through seemingly endless repetition. “I really believe,’' Butler said, “that if you teach and drill a kid so that he’s the best at his position as he can possibly be, he’ll want to be there every day, in spite of the pain he’ll have to endure.’'

As I observed football practices at various high schools, it became apparent that a near fanatical attention to detail--an insistence that drills be repeated over and over again until a certain flawlessness was achieved--was the essence of on-field coaching. Alternately praising, scolding, and screaming, coaches time and time again demonstrated techniques--stance, footwork, blocking patterns--and then had the players work through them.

“There are so many technique things that can be done to really teach a kid,’' Butler said. “But maybe even more important than mastering a technique is the fact that you’re imparting to a kid the importance of mastering a technique.’'

This principle, he thought, would apply to any classroom subject. While a student, for example, may never again use the geometry he or she has struggled to master, the very act of having mastered something--of having persevered through difficulties--instills a confidence that will serve the student well in other tasks.

Nevertheless, for these young athletes, football has an enormous advantage over geometry. Kids, in competition, see the immediate results of what they learn; all the drills have an immediate relevance that’s lacking in most scholastic exercises. There is nothing abstract or remote about their sense of mastery.

Butler is highly skeptical about the notion, promulgated by countless educators, that kids lack self-esteem. In fact, he believes that far too many teenagers think themselves the “walk of the world.’' But their apparent confidence is but a misplaced cockiness. “To feel good about yourself in a meaningful way,’' Butler said, “you have to accomplish something of some difficulty. Our players who are successful feel that they are absolutely unique, the elite, because the greatest skill in football is not to jump high or to run fast but to become football tough, which means learning how to take or give a hit. We constantly tell kids that that’s the greatest skill of all, and only a few people have it. And it’s a skill that can be developed.’'

The atmosphere in the Pekin locker room before the Dragons’ first game against Springfield, to whom they had lost last year, was remarkably businesslike. Sitting on benches before a chalkboard, the players, virtually motionless, listened to their coaches run through offensive and defensive schemes one last time. The coaches’ final words were practical rather than rousing. “The worst thing you can do,’' the line coach said, “is think too much. Just do what you’ve done in practice, and you’ll be on automatic pilot.’'

Patton doesn’t believe in pep talks--he thinks they provide but a momentary lift that all too soon wears off--and so his message to the players before they took the field for warm-ups was matter-of-fact. “I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished,’' he said. “You’ve done everything you’ve been asked to do. Again, just take what you’ve done on the practice field to the game, and you’ll be successful.’'

After warm-ups and just before kickoff, the coaches removed the players to a grassy knoll with a view obstructed by parked buses. The coaches, in a tight huddle, continued to discuss tactics; the players remained silent, staring blankly into the sky or closing their eyes. Then, as the team was summoned to the field, Patton walked over to his players, got on his knees, bowed his head, and recited with his team the Lord’s Prayer. The players then stormed the field, whooping and hollering.

The Dragons, with quarterback Sirotak connecting with his receivers on a number of nifty rollouts, held a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Nevertheless, Patton was controlled on the sideline, never so much as pumping a clenched fist. At half time, it was 26-7, and each time Pekin scored Patton simply consulted his playbook, preparing for the next sequence of downs.

The weather was terrible, viciously humid and hot, and at half time the players drenched their heads under a row of spigots before slumping to the ground. Patton told his team, “We are in better shape than them, more disciplined, and if we stop them and score a touchdown, they’ll quit.’' Right before the players retook the field, Patton asked, “You guys are having fun, aren’t you?’'

“Yes, sir,’' they answered.

But the third quarter was not fun for Pekin. The Springfield team suddenly seemed much quicker and fresher, scoring almost at will on several long runs. With six minutes left in the game, Springfield led 27-26, and the Pekin players appeared dazed on the sidelines. After Springfield scored its third touchdown in quick succession, several players shouted, “It’s not over yet.’' But they didn’t sound very convinced. Patton, though, kept his composure, showing a flash of temper only once. When a player whom the coach had criticized attempted to explain himself, Patton exploded: “Don’t ever talk to me like that again! Do you understand?’'

The crowd was quiet, the players dispirited, but then, almost miraculously, Sirotak brought the Dragons back from what seemed like certain defeat. Rolling out to one sideline and then the other, he completed, with uncanny consistency, one pass after another. With machinelike precision, the Dragons charged down the field, scoring once and then twice. The final score was Pekin 41, Springfield 27.

After the game, Patton spoke briefly to his players in the middle of the field. “We did a good job, especially considering that they had a lot more speed.’' Then he delivered the quintessential message of all football coaches. “We were down, but then we made the big plays, stepped up when we had to,’' he said. “And that’s the measure of character.’'

Football coaches have long been reputed to be rigid, authoritarian, and temperamental. And, from what I saw, this appears to be true. Pushing their players to the breaking point, screaming and sometimes cursing at them, insisting that they do exactly what they are told if they want to attain success, coaches truly are the ultraconservatives of the teaching profession. As a group, they have an instinctive disdain for anything that smacks of progressivism. They want obedience and not discussion; drill, not improvisation; absolute unity, not expressions of individuality.

It’s not hard to take issue with Patton’s assertion that there are “tremendous parallels’’ between coaching on the field and teaching in the classroom. Educators routinely argue that if students are going to be prepared for the challenges of the next century, then they must learn to be creative and think critically. They must acquire what researchers call “metacognitive skills’'--the ability to think about their thinking, so that they’re not “grooved’’ to approach a problem in a predetermined way. On the surface, none of this seems compatible with the coaching of football, which demands unquestioning obedience and a perfection of certain techniques so that the athlete can perform on “automatic pilot.’'

Yet it would be foolish to suggest that coaching high school football has little to do with good classroom teaching. In certain educational circles, “drill and practice’’ have acquired bad names, associated as they are with an antiquated back-to-basics approach to teaching. Yet it’s not hard to see that drills, often shunned as punishingly monotonous, can be beneficial. The musician who has mastered scales and the writer who has grasped grammar and punctuation have, like the athlete who has perfected certain techniques, enormous advantages. In a very real sense, such people have made unconscious what once took conscious effort, freeing themselves to work at the nuances of craftsmanship and style. Being on what football coaches call “automatic pilot’’ can actually promote creativity.

In spite of being put through arduous drills--or perhaps because of it--young athletes display a respect and loyalty for certain coaches that they show for few teachers, giving credence to Patton’s insistence that “young people are starved for discipline.’'

“Discipline is the key,’' says a handout Patton distributed to his players at the first team meeting. “This means ignoring small hurts and sucking up your guts when you are tired....NEVER NEVER BREAK! The man who can push himself the farthest when the effort gets painful is the one who will win in the long run.’'

Almost 30 years ago, when asked what values he thought football could impart, Vince Lombardi listed, “Spartanism, dedication, mental toughness, courage, stamina.’' None of the coaches I talked with would alter this list in any substantial way. In an American culture that sometimes seems to value sincerity and effusiveness--the “honest’’ expression of feeling--above all else, these coaches are contrarians in that they value stoicism, the ability to endure through pain and hardship. And the players I talked with expressed gratitude, time and time again, that someone cared enough to push them to the limit.

“The higher calling we coaches and teachers have,’' Butler said, “is to go beyond the immediate satisfaction of being liked. The question is, can you wait 10 years for praise? Because it might take that long for a 15-year-old kid to see that the steps you put him through were worthwhile in the long run.’'

As much as these coaches insist upon obedience (“The moment they walk over the white line onto the field,’' Butler said, “they know I must have their complete attention’’), they’re often the first people students consult during times of crisis. In his 16 years of coaching, John Venturi of Washington (Ill.) High School has dealt with attempted suicides, near-death experiences, split homes, alcoholism, and physical abuse. “In most cases, the kids want us involved, and they typically come to us first,’' he said. “Now, teachers can be consulted just as we can. But the difference is that teachers have that kid for just 45 minutes a day, whereas we get the whole kid. The classroom teacher just doesn’t have the same opportunity.’'

Butler, like Venturi and the other coaches, said players frequently sought him out in times of trouble. But even here he emphasized not the value of personal counsel but the lessons of persistence through pain, learned day in and day out on the practice field.

“We all like to think that we have a little Father Flanagan in us,’' he said at the close of our conversation, “that kids will come to us in times of crisis and that we’ll come up with a few proverbs that will change their lives. But the truth of the matter is that almost never happens. But if you’ve taught them the right standards, the importance of dealing with adversity, then you’ve given them what they need to handle difficult situations ahead of time. You can’t accomplish anything lasting in life if emotions are overwhelming you. So about the most we can really do is teach young people the importance of struggling through adversity.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Playing By The Rules