I was complaining to my Dad the other day. My 8th grade son was given the opportunity to participate in heat acclimation drills with his school’s varsity football team. For reasons I cannot even begin to fathom he was less than enthusiastic. His school is by most standards very small, and his starting position has been solidified since, forever. My talking to him about his reluctance had turned into me talking at him, then yelling and he pretty much tuned me out after that.
Me: “He’s never had anybody pushing him. Never felt what it’s like to have another player breathing down his neck for playing time. Never felt that emptiness when you want to play but the guy ahead of you is just better. Never been cut. He’s spoiled by success and it’s made him lazy and entitled. I can’t talk to him.”
Dad: “The summer before my first year in high school we had football tryouts. A hundred kids my age so we knew some of us were going home. Well, we did our thing and the coaches ordered us up into the bleachers. Told us they’d call our name and if they did we were to go stand on the track. We didn’t know why we were supposed to stand on the track but back then if a coach said to do it you just did it or you didn’t stick around long. So the coaches are huddled around this clipboard and they start calling names and after a while they call mine. Coach Farrar was running the show and he had his head down looking at the clipboard and he happened to look up as I was walking by. He leaned over and said something to one of the coaches and that coach didn’t seem too happy but then Coach Farrar said to me, ‘Get back up there, son. We don’t want you.’ I didn’t know what to think about that. So they get finished reading off names and when they do Coach Farrar turns to the boys on the track and says ‘Thanks for coming out, but we just don’t have the room for you.’ Thing of it is, he didn’t know my name. All he knew was what he saw in that tryout and I promise you it wasn’t much. But I decided that whatever I did on that football field I’d do it so as not to disappoint that man, to reward that faith he had in me. Maybe the boy needs to hear that. Maybe he needs to understand that those coaches may not know him now, may not even know his name, but what he does, how hard he works, that starts to build trust and faith and that’ll pay off sometime down the road.”
I was 14 years old or so when I finally met Coach Farrar, although my dad had told me the stories. Coach had left high school by then, teaching and coaching at a local university. As a baseball coach and professional scout my dad gave him a call and asked would he be willing to look at his son’s swing and maybe give him a pointer or two. Ten minutes with the man and I understood why my dad was so fond of Coach Farrar. He did what he could for my swing and as we were leaving, said something to me that I can hear word for word almost 30 years later: “Your dad,” he said, “was one of the best players I ever coached.”
The 120 pound senior. The defensive back with the blown out knee. Coach Farrar had seen talent over the years but he decided that something was more important than talent. Desire.
I call them “pound puppies.” They are players without the ability or talent to match the heart and dedication. A pound puppy is so happy to be playing that they will do anything they are asked. Pound puppies make the best teammates. A team of pound puppies can become champions.
My dad was a pound puppy. So was I. My son is not. His ability is something I could never match and it’s why I talk past him a lot when it comes to sports. Our experiences are divergent.
As a coach I am bothered by the fact that there are a lot of pound puppies sitting at home. Kids that weren’t “run fast jump high” and were overlooked. Dedication can’t be timed. Heart can’t be measured. You have to seek it out. And you have to know what you’re looking for. Coach Farrar saw it in my dad. Coaches saw it in me as well over the years. McDowell. Frazier. Worthen. Groll. Names to you. Giants to me. Men I would have run through a wall for. Still would.
Pound puppies are like that.