Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Honor, Commitment, and a Ponytail

It was July when the girl approached us in the weight room and said she wanted to come out for football as a senior--the reviews among the men and boys were mixed. 

On the one hand, the girl was a soon-to-be Division I athlete. Having committed to a college for lacrosse, some adults were confused by the choice. After all, injuries are commonplace in high school football for young men who workout and build muscle in order to withstand the grind and physicality of the game...
But a girl? 

A girl with a future in another sport? 

A girl with a scholarship in her back pocket? 

A girl who, as a freshman, ran meaningful miles and contributed to a high school cross country team who happened to win the state title?

A senior girl wanted to play high school football for the first time--and I can remember the first and loudest syllable falling from every mouth who knew her: why?

WHY? Why risk everything you've built? Why risk your future as a college athlete?

She wanted to play for her cousin, Andrew McDonough, who would not have the opportunity to play anything anymore--he lost his fight with leukemia after six painful months. The girl wanted to do something to honor her cousin.

For four evenings a week, between 5pm and 7pm, the high school team lifted weights together.  Often, the boys would run outside as the last bit of sun sanded away the day and the one-story buildings cast squat shadows across brittle grass. As the boys pushed weight up and down and ran together in small groups, the girl worked on learning how to kick a football.

Often alone.

Sometimes with the assistance of the kicker she would soon compete against.

But she was there when we were there. Day after day. Kicking a football. Chasing a football. Kicking it again. Chasing it again. We all saw her. Between sets, the boys would take a peek downhill through the weight room doorway. There she was. That girl. Going about her workout by herself. Never looking up.

Resolute and determined, she must have kicked 10, 000 footballs in six weeks.

Sometimes she checked in with us at the top of the rise, nervous but smiling. Soon returning to her solitary workout.

Eventually, the summer burned deep into August. Our grass was blonde and had not needed a cut in weeks. Dust kicked up as the boys ran across it. The first practice of the season was in the morning and we wore shorts and t-shirts. About sixty boys showed.

Zero girls.

We practiced for a couple of hours, trying to beat the coming afternoon humidity. As we dismissed the boys for the afternoon, all seventy of us--players and coaches--walked towards the school. 

Our practice field was in a gully--actually, it still is the school's practice field--and serves as the low point for water run-off for the campus. The high school baseball field is perched like a castle high above it. The ninth grade baseball field frames one side, also high above it. A wide pond, a drainage field, is nestled between the two little round tops holding the baseball fields high and dry.

Being down in that gully, coaches or players can't see much else except what is going on in front of us. No distractions. Just the way we liked it. And since the girl did not show up, I imagine some others were ok with that too. Some assumed she wasn't going to compete for a spot after all--maybe we had avoided a possible distraction.

Yet, as we walked up the steep rise, I saw the girl. 

She stood with her father about a hundred yards away from us. The coaches were in front of the boys, and as we drew near, she smiled, waved, and was about to say something, but I cut her off--

"Are you going to play football or not?" I barked. I believed in her and I wanted her to know I was going to treat her like every other player...if she came out.

Kalyn said, "Uh...ah...I didn't...what...I guess...I..." 

She was perfectly inarticulate. I've been there. We all suffer these temporary spells. The critical moments in our lives where talking about something accomplishes little. The moments in our lives where action and acting on our wishes means more than just the idea.

"Evening practice starts at 5pm. Be here at 4:30 if you're playing."

Not far behind her, the girl's father cracked a slight and careful smile.

"See you tonight, coach." She answered with confidence. 

With her trademark blonde pony tail wagging from beneath her helmet, the girl went on to win the job as our placekicker--making damn near all of her kicks. What hangs with me to this day, more than five years later, is a point that grew roots in me as the coaches debated which player won the kicking job as the first game of the season loomed just days away--the boy or the girl?

And I asked the other coaches, "Would we be having this debate if her name was Kevin McDonough?

To this day, I believe that question made the point. Actually, to this day I believe Kaylyn made her point just fine when she won that job. Sometimes men need a little nudge to see exactly what they are indeed seeing.

A kid made a commitment, set a goal, and accomplished it--it remains among the most special experiences I've had in education and in coaching.

I admire the hell out of kids like that Kayln--boy or girl.

P.S. We went undefeated during the regular season (10-0) and won our first round district playoff game against Phoenixville before falling to a great local rival, Garnet Valley, in the second round of the playoffs. 


  1. You, sir, are a great storyteller...and this was a great story to tell. Thanks for sharing it with us. And thank you, Kaylyn, for giving us an example of true determination and courage.

  2. That's something I needed to read today. Thank you, sir, for telling it with detail and clarity.

  3. Beautifully told story. Thanks for writing it. It is a story many need to hear.

  4. Loved this post! What an amazing story of perseverance! Like you I so admire kids who are willing to work that hard. I also loved the way you told the story- the pacing of longer paragraphs and short lines moved the story along beautifully.

  5. Coach, thank you for giving Kalyn the opportunity. Many would have shut her out. She brought honor to her coaches, teammates, family, herself, and most of all, her cousin - my son- who watched her kick from Heaven. Thank you.