Coach Birch was a towering man. He loomed over us, all-powerful and all-knowing. His word was final.
As a junior I was the smallest offensive lineman to take the field on any varsity team in our division, 175 lbs. The second week of practice I looked up at the depth chart taped to the wall of the locker room and saw my name, starting at weak side tackle. I was happy. I looked closer and saw my name was also listed as second string at every other position on the line. This made me nervous. It was a hard year.
That was Coach Birch’s first losing season, the school’s first in two decades. I and a few other underclassmen took the blame and we deserved it. Every week a senior, or some super sophomore, would try to take my spot. They never did, I was better. I was better than them, but rarely better than the other team. Long live competition!
Mid season, during practice, Birch exploded.
“D@#$! Brohammas! Pull your head out of your @$$ and play football. I swear you would do a better job for this team if you went and stood in the corner somewhere.”
Half the team stood still in fearful shock, while the other half snickered. I silently seethed as the only acceptable response would be improved play. It wouldn’t happen that day. That was one of those many days where body and mind could not agree. Practice ended and we all just went home.
Birch called that night. I had never heard him apologize to anyone before, in my mind he never needed too. He told me his words were out of line and he regretted them. He explained he had a bad temper, which we all knew, but he continued.
“I will continue to yell at you till you begin to play better. We need you to play better. I wish I knew a better way but I don’t. The problem is I know you are better than you are playing. You can do a lot better. Son, just know that I only yell because I still believe in you. If I ever stop yelling at you, it’s time to worry because that means I have given up on you.”
For all I know Coach had read this line in a Vince Lombardi quote book, but it worked. I gained more confidence from that phone call than anything before it. I was too young and hopeful to be properly skeptical. Cynicism takes years to develop. I believed every word of it.
That was roughly sixteen years ago. I have done many things, been many places, and known great people, but few had the impact he did. I still think about that call. I still think about those years. The older I get the less I speak of them, but their memory hasn’t dimmed. For good or bad, those years and that man are one of the cornerstones of who I am, part of the foundation I am built on.