The FBU National Championship, Part 3: The Dog Catches the Car

After Southeast Louisiana we were ready to hang points on the board. So we did. Final score Northwest Louisiana 38, Arkansas 0. They were good sized kids but couldn’t match our speed and everything they did we had an answer for. PJ caught four scores. Slade was a magician running the option, sucking the linebackers up with play action then going over the top. The defense pitched another shutout and we just physically wore them down. It wasn’t Arkansas’ fault. Some days you just play a team that is flat out better and no amount of coaching or adjustments or half time pep talks will change that fact.

This was the game where heads began to turn, when we began to earn the reputation as a brutal, physical, outwork you until you quit team. Later on, when each of the Final Four teams had a highlight video made by FBU, the other teams had plenty of long runs, athletic catches, and timely interceptions. Our film looked like closed circuit TV footage of a bar fight.

Mike the HC gathered us around to explain what was about to happen. The next step in FBU’s “Road To the Dome” was in Kansas City, Missouri. Nine hours and 540 miles away. Our first game was Saturday morning. And it was Sunday. The longer Mike talked to the players and their parents the more the realization of what was about to happen showed on his face.

You have to get 32 players to the middle of the country. You have no budget. Most of your players’ parents can’t skip work on such short notice so there will be little adult supervision and support. You have to drive because it’s too expensive to fly. Ditto for renting a bus so that means the team will arrive in pieces in whatever transportation you can arrange. Half or your coaching staff will not be available because of prior commitments.

You have six days to solve all of these problems. Go.

Mike was the HC for a reason. I would have tried to pile 32 kids in my wife’s Saturn SUV and thought about food, lodging and bathrooms when our hypoglycemic players started losing consciousness amongst piles of their own excrement. Mike had a better idea- he started working the phones. Sal offered to drive his RV with Joe the OC and eight players (this was before Sal was “Sal.”) A player’s grandfather donated enough cash for Mike to rent a passenger van and carry another dozen players along with his wife Laurie who I am pretty sure gets her own condo in Heaven for putting up with twelve middle school boys for eighteen plus hours- not including pregame, postgame, and hotel hallway duty. The West Monroe parents, those who had bosses, told them that they were in a national championship football tournament and got whatever time off they needed. If there is Heaven on Earth for football I’m pretty sure it’s in West Monroe, Louisiana.

I rented a minivan, loaded three players, my wife, two coolers and enough caffeine to keep Lindbergh awake across the Atlantic and headed north.

Two rules for traveling with a team, doesn’t matter the sport. One, a hotel has to have a breakfast. Two, it has to have a pool. I was met at the reception area by a dozen or so soaking wet players and as I checked in I noticed the coffee and juice machines indicating a free continental breakfast. The hotel even gave us our own wing. They must have been the parents of teenage boys too. Good job, Mike.

Missouri in December is cold. Not Canada or Siberia cold but for a bunch of people that usually show for Christmas dinner dressed in shorts it might as well have been the surface of the moon. Our first opponent, Wichita, lived in the stuff year round so the home field advantage was definitely their’s. What made me even colder was the absence of game film. We had no clue about Wichita’s personnel, tendencies or even their base offense or defense. You know the feeling you get when you wake up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar place and you need to use the bathroom but you don’t know where it is? I kind of felt like that.

It didn’t help when Wichita came out and ran the ball down our throats and scored first. Double freaking wing. Got some undersized kids that are smart and disciplined? Run the double wing. It gives defensive coordinators irritable bowel syndrome. Unless a defensive coordinator happened to coach the double wing for five years, which I had. Felt like the briar patch was calling me home. We gathered the defense around after the first series.

Me: “Wherever the fullback goes, tackle him. Then everybody behind the fullback, tackle them. Questions?”

I’m no defensive guru. Can barely count to 11 and figure out the strong side from the weak. But if you just tackle the fullback in the double wing then the backfield suddenly looks like the parking lot at Disneyworld on Fourth of July weekend.

Northwest Louisiana 34, Wichita 6. But Dallas was up next. Fast, athletic. And with a few million people in the Metro Plex we were certain they had more than a few game breakers on the squad. I figured we had topped out.

As usual, I was wrong.

The FBU National Championship, Part 2- A Game of Memory

I watch film. Game film. To most people watching game film as a youth football coach is the equivalent of topping off your boat’s live well when you’re bass fishing with dynamite. But it can mean the difference between a play that wins the game and a play that loses it. Or a player that wins the game or loses it. And while it’s supposed to be fun and esteem building and all of that other stuff, it gets very serious when a coach realizes that thirty something players believe you should have all the answers and put their faith in you to get it right.

So I watch a lot of film.

Of course there is a flip side. The same eye for detail used to break down an opponent’s tendencies and weaknesses can make watching your game film uncomfortable. Every mistake moved from the reel of the projector to the reel of the mind. Every missed opportunity advertised for an audience of one. So, once the season is over, I don’t watch film. Maybe, I say to myself, when my son is thirty and I’m mostly dead and we need something to entertain ourselves during Thanksgiving I’ll drop the tape in and relive the past with a less accusing eye.

Problem is, my memory sucks. I can remember getting ready for the game against Southeast Louisiana. I remember the game plan. Press the offense. Overload with blitzes and force the action. Set the edge and take away the speed advantage- if New Orleans had anything, we reasoned, it was speed and it had to be negated. Defense always shines early in a tournament so don’t overload our guys with too much and let them play fast. The game? Just a blur.

So I put in the tape.

First thing that struck me- Southeast was bigger than we were. And faster. Then I remembered a conversation I had with my son during warm-ups.
Jack: “Here they come.”
Me: “No. Too big. That’s the 8th grade team getting off the field.”
Jack: “Then why are they warming up?”
Me: “Maybe they’re just being thorough.”

Second thing-the game was sloppy. We made too many mistakes. They made more. And that was the difference in the game. It was to be expected when kids had only played together for a week or two. We would see as the tournament progressed that the mistakes would be less frequent, their impacts tremendous.
Third- the game hinged on moments. Cliché, I know, but so true. In a one-and-done tournament you never know the moment that decides your fate, the one that sends you home or sends you on. We had a moment.
Southeast had not made a first down. Mid fourth quarter, down by six and at their own thirty they have their best offensive play of the game. The Hail Mary was picked by our all-everything safety and downed at our thirty. Three and out and we set up to punt.

Then, the moment.

The coaches put their heads together to strategize. Until then we had not punted, trusting our defense- who had not allowed a first down- to keep everything out front. I wanted to get the ball as far away from the other end zone as possible. The others wanted a shot at a first down. I begged not to give my guys a short field. They relented. Everyone’s eyes turned to the punter. The backup to the backup quarterback. Spotless jersey.

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The punt was partially blocked. It should have been blocked into the end zone. Somebody got through but Elliott stood his ground and delivered. The prettiest 5 yard punt I’ve ever seen. I let down my guard and talked to the kid as a grownup as he left the field.

“Son, they couldn’t fit your balls in a dump truck!”

Final score: Northwest Louisiana 6. Southeast Louisiana 0. We lived to fight the next day. We didn’t know it at the time, but this game would turn out to be our toughest victory. Of course, none of the victories were easy.

The film doesn’t lie.

I watch the film and am reminded of things I had forgotten. A play. A conversation. A moment. Things that, at the time, I believed would be etched in my memory forever. Things so powerful I thought I’d never forget. And I think, what else have I lost? What other memories are my “tears in the rain?”

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Maybe I shouldn’t trust my memory so much. Maybe there are memories so important they shouldn’t be entrusted to the same brain that forgets his kid’s lunches or to pay the water bill. Growing up my dad would be in the stands at our games or on vacation decked out like a Japanese tourist. Video camera. Nikon with telephoto lens and kung fu grip. Back then I thought he was trying to get out of riding Space Mountain at Disney World or coaching first base. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe he was making sure the memories stayed when his brain failed. That we’d always have those memories whether we were reminded of them or not. For my fortieth birthday he took all of my game films- the ones he recorded- and put them on DVD for me.

I should watch more film.

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