By Mark Barnes
Most men can look back at their lives and identify the people that made them who they are. That list includes their parents, or in some cases a single parent. Sometimes that small group includes other relatives, an uncle or aunt, a grandfather. Perhaps it was an older brother. Maybe it was a teacher or a pastor. They are the people in their lives that taught them how to live, how to behave, how to be a good person. And to some men, the one person that had the most impact in their lives was their coach.
No other figure can have more of an impact in a young man’s life than a coach. For Kuna’s young men playing football, Coach Lee Leslie is one of those that they will remember for life. He is a good one.
At Hell week, a four-day campout with three practices a day the week before school starts, Coach Leslie and his coaching team condition and train the skills that his boys will need for the upcoming season if they are to dominate on the field. As I arrived to watch practice on the last full day, I expected to see the players doing football drills on the grass, balls being passed, bodies being thrown at tackling dummies, skills being taught with such repetition that it becomes second nature for them. I witnessed something completely different.
Upon arrival, everyone was in the high school auditorium watching a movie. Inside, the movie “42” was playing, the story of Jackie Robinson and how he overcame obstacles to be the first black player in the major leagues. I ran into Kenny Carver, the Kuna Booster Club president who told me that “42” is the theme for this years team. It is printed on the back of their brand new jerseys. It is part of their chants on the field. It represents overcoming the obstacles that one must conquer to be great. It is pure inspiration.
It is also the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything calculated by an enormous computer over 7.5 million years in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In some ways this number is the meaning of the season for the Kuna football team.
After the movie was over, with the sun setting on a beautiful Idaho evening, the team ran out on the field. But first Coach Leslie looked to the bright red sunset and changed plans. He wanted a photograph of his team among their tents with the burning spirit of this last Hell Week night with the backdrop of the Idaho sky. Only after that did they return to the field for what I thought were some drills.
After granting me a short interview while the team spread out and warmed up on the field, he coordinated them in some chants, some team building. It didn’t look like practice. It looked like fun. And the boys were all having fun, jumping up and doing chest bumps with each other before splitting off into their separate groups. They ended up practicing not plays, but how they were going to run out on the field. Even the cheerleaders got involved. The coaches were building team spirit, it was clear from the energy on the field.
They broke for dinner and rest before the final night’s event, planned for midnight… a ceremony that, while only in its second year, was already labeled a tradition.
From the home bleachers, one looks out across a cornfield towards the mountains to the east and the Boise skyline. A full moon rises over the smoke from the fires still burning in Sun Valley. A cool summer breeze carrying the sweet smell of sage of the desert floats through the air in anticipation of the ceremony at midnight.
A spear stands thrust into the ground on the 50-yard line in the middle of the field. A single spotlight illuminates it from the top of the press box. Freshmen walk single file out on to the field and encircle the spear in a large ring. Next come the sophomores and then the juniors dressed in their workout shorts and loose t-shirts walking in and forming rings inside the other. It is quiet. No one speaks. Finally the seniors arrive forming the innermost circle. It looks like a Balinese monkey dance is about to erupt but all one hears are the sounds of cars passing on Meridian road a half mile away and farm dogs barking in the distance. It is so quiet you can hear the breeze.
These boys are strong, but clearly tired. Coach has worked them hard all week. These boys are polite, the way small town boys generally are. Many remove their hats understanding the solemnness of what they are about to experience.
The silence is broken by Coach Leslie expressing his admiration for the senior class and how it is the best he has led in his 30 years of coaching. He extolls their virtues, their grades and their achievements. He speaks of commitment. Small flames move through the crowd, passed from person to person lighting a candle each of them hold.
Coach speaks of the example of Jackie Robinson. He speaks of “42”. He speaks of everything except football. He then leads them in an oath about being men. They repeat what he asks them to say. They do, in unison as one, a deep, strong voice.
He gives the man talk, advice you would imagine coming from a father. He calls out individuals, showering them with encouragement and advice. He doesn’t mention football. He talks about being men. He makes them promise to keep this promise, then they blow out their candles.
Now it is the senior’s turn. They each step up and talk about themselves, their team and their brothers. Some are quite emotional talking about the hardships they’ve overcome, telling the younger players not to do what they did because what they have here, at that moment, on that field is special, and not to mess that up.
As the full moon shines down the wind shifts. This is a team.
“Who are you?” they shout.