Sometimes you really don't know what you're getting into.
Like that time in fifth grade when I let my friends talk me in to taking part in a dance contest at teen dance party. I quickly realized I have the dancing skills of an elephant, got scared and ended up doing the worm across the floor of a church in Girard. Even though I won first place (pretty sure they just felt really bad), it wasn't one of my best ideas.
As I grow older, I'm taking more calculated chances in life. One of the more recent opportunities was when I was asked to be an assistant coach for the Trumbull County football team in the Jack Arvin Classic. Brian Jones, the head coach for Trumbull County who recently stepped down after one season at Liberty, asked me to join him and fellow coaches John Foster, Marc Bjelac, Mike Calderone, Jim Pappada, Dave Davis and Jerron Jenkins.
Never having been part of an all-star game, it was a bit of a risk. Dealing with different coaches can be difficult, and you never know what kind of kids you're going to get. The best players also can possess the biggest egos, the smartest mouths and the worst practice habits. Furthermore, the dedication from kids who just graduated and are trying to enjoy their summers at graduation parties and senior trips can be questionable, at best. All of it can be a recipe for disaster.
That wasn't the case with this team. I can honestly say there wasn't one bad kid out of the 32 on the roster, which included players from Brookfield, Girard, Howland, Hubbard, John F. Kennedy, Lakeview, Liberty, McDonald, Mineral Ridge, Newton Falls, Niles and Warren G. Harding. I was really expecting a few skirmishes at practice considering a lot of these kids were from rival schools. I thought maybe they'd argue about playing time and who should start at each position. None of that ever happened.
The last three weeks ended up being one of the best experiences I've ever had in my five years as a coach. Not only were the players coachable and respectful, but they were absolutely hilarious. I worked with the secondary and wide receivers and had the opportunity to coach such characters as Christian Rusinowski (McDonald), Jarred Crowder (Newton Falls), Evan DelBene (Girard), Brandon Harb (Hubbard), John Helms (Liberty), Sherron Walls (Liberty), Elijah Henderson (Lakeview), Stefan Yuhas (Niles), Aaron Watson (Niles), O'Sha Jackson (Harding), Lamar Freeman (Harding) and Lebrandon Watson (Harding).
It was obvious from the start the kids were physically talented, but what really impressed me was their ability to form a chemistry. It usually takes months to form the type of cohesiveness they created in a matter of weeks. And it paid off during the game.
Things looked bleak as Mahoning County took an early 21-0 lead. The sideline was silent, the kids looked flat and the game appeared to be spiraling out of control in the first quarter when Geno Moore returned an interception for a touchdown. Walking into the locker room down 26-7 at the half was depressing considering how hard the kids worked. I was worried the kids might give up because it was just an all-star game, but apparently I underestimated their competitiveness.
A fumble recovery by Harding defensive lineman Roger Craig, who fought through an injury to play in the second half, infused energy into the team. Then Howland quarterback Eric Lockney started dropping near-perfect passes all over the field. He ended up being the Trumbull County MVP, and deservedly so. He got help from a defense that was gashed by a powerful Mahoning running game in the first half. It regrouped and allowed only eight points in the final two quarters.
A game I thought was going to be soft and lacking in intensity was just the opposite. The hits were some of the hardest I've seen all year, and the drama really picked up when Trumbull County pulled within a touchdown on a 50-yard TD catch from Lockney to Henderson. We came up short in the final minutes, losing 34-26, but I've never been in such a good mood after a loss.
The first thing I heard when I walked toward the end zone where the team was huddled up after the game was kids saying how much fun they had. A few players came up to me, shook my hand and told me it was a pleasure. They sat in the locker room reminiscing long after the game ended - shaking hands, pounding fists and clowning around. The coaches - guys I?have the utmost respect for - did much of the same.
I've always told myself I wanted to coach because of the impact I could have on kids' lives and not just to win. Thursday night solidified that concept, and I have a group of kids I only knew for a few weeks to thank for it.
The pleasure was all mine, boys.