Everyone, at some point in their life, needs a football coach.
You don’t even need to play football. I would have played benchwarmer had I even donned a uniform, but every now and then I watch “Friday Night Lights” and get some inspiration from Gary Gaines. There are times when the exhortations of the legendary Vince Lombardi fire me up. And sometimes, I need Bill Belichick to remind me to take my wardrobe less seriously.
At the moment, however, Ralph Potter is the football coach we all need. He’s the head coach at McCallie High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His life lesson of the moment doesn’t have to do with giving 100 percent every time you’re on the field or how life is a game of inches. Instead, his lesson is that we all need to show up again.
In a letter published in Outkick the Coverage earlier this week, Potter explained why he thinks it’s time for our kids to go back to school and start playing sports again.
The coach felt compelled to write the letter after he came to “know two things for sure.”
“First, there is a deep, even visceral need among them to return to normalcy. It goes beyond playing a game or getting a formal education; it is a need for communion with one another and with other adults in their lives,” Potter wrote.
“Second, there is an absolute willingness to take whatever steps necessary to make a full return possible. None of these guys are unserious about the pandemic. They are anxious to be instructed on what they need to do to protect themselves, their family, and each other.”
Potter noted that if we looked at the tragic numbers and the percentage of positive tests, our first instinct would be to shutter our schools and stop playing sports.
However, he said, “There are high costs to be paid. Too high, I think.”
“Many of these costs are being talked about frequently. They include mountainous debt, millions suffering in poor countries, significant rises in teenage depression, drug use, and suicide, and loss of academic and social development,” he wrote.
Those issues are on the macro level, however. Potter described what he was seeing on a a micro level as a football coach.
“I’d like you to know that when a young man goes through a football season, he is at a formative stage. The desire that these guys have to play and succeed, and the investment of emotion, time, and physical effort they put into it, creates an opportunity for deep learning to occur,” he wrote.
“They go through many unpredictable emotions. They win; they lose; they become a star; they lose their starting position; they struggle with jealousy, disappointment, elation, and success; they learn to love the people that annoy them. At best, they gain a confidence that can’t be described; they know they are responsible; they are able; they can endure. They are given real responsibility. Yes, it is just football, but it is real. They know that what they do or don’t do really matters. They begin to understand what we mean by communion, that we are each responsible for one another, that we are not alone, that we are not an island.”
These are the quotidian things that get lost when we focus on those macro issues, Potter says.
“This is what goes on every day in our classrooms and playing fields all over our country. You rarely hear about it, because destruction is easier and gets more clicks than construction,” he wrote.
“But it is there and by it, our society coheres. You can’t see it easily when it is taken away. It can’t be measured by science, objectively. How can you describe the substance of a void, a hole where a structure should have been? It is said that God is the source of all being, that His love is constantly creating the world, creating us. If that’s true, then evil is something like the absence of being, a void, a nothingness where life should have been. That’s what this is like. What these young people lose, they will never get back, and the longer this goes on, the more catastrophic the loss becomes.
“So, those are the costs that we know, and the price is very high. In this terrible situation in which we find ourselves, those costs must be weighed against the risks, and we must find ways to mitigate those risks as much as possible,” Potter continued.
“We must ask ourselves, ‘What is the endpoint of this?’ Perhaps a vaccine will soon be developed. We don’t know that for sure though, and we don’t know its effectiveness either. We have to begin to think of what the world looks like if Covid-19 never goes away. For my part, I do not accept the last three and a half months as a model for what that world will be.
“Let the young people be raised and formed. The risk to them is minimal. Protect the most vulnerable. Be creative in our solutions to this,” he concluded.
“Please let them go to school. Let them play.”
This is the conversation we should be having. We don’t, because it doesn’t involve shouting. It doesn’t involve accepting that there are trade-offs, that we can’t hit pause until we all get that magical jab in the arm that lets us go back to status-quo ante. And it also makes us realize we can still decide what “the new normal” is.
I think it’s important to realize “the new normal” isn’t something that’s already been cast in plaster. It’s a life of distance learning, of meeting your friends through Zoom, of staying in our bubbles until a vaccine comes along. Say that this isn’t settled gospel and you might as well be endorsing “COVID parties” during a packed happy hour at your favorite bar.
What we don’t realize is this new normal isn’t a normal at all — particularly for young men and women who are being put at serious risk for mental illness and learning gaps but who would face minimal risk from returning to the classroom.
There are life lessons that are being lost, not just for athletes but for debaters, for budding scientists, for artists, for kids who just want to be kids, if only for a few hours. It’s not just that we shouldn’t be bubble-wrapping these kids. It’s that we don’t even need to in order to keep them safe. And even if we did, the cost is too great.
We need a new new normal. Don’t just listen to me. Listen to Coach Potter — the football coach we all need right now.
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