High school sports are more than wins and losses

Jeff Birchfield • Sep 26, 2012 at 8:26 PM

Vince Lombardi was wrong.

The legendary Green Bay Packers coach is most famous for the line, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Sports, particularly high school sports, are about much more than simple results. In fairness to Lombardi, that is only one of his famous quotes and several others emphasize hard work and teamwork, themes that stand the test of time.

Under normal circumstances, sports provide a common thread to bring a community together. There’s the well-traveled story of the Unaka Rangers being introduced at the 2004 state basketball championships.

The announcer calls out, ‘From Elizabethton, Tennessee,” and then pauses as he is corrected and then yells, “From Stony Creek, Tennessee,” to which the crowd goes nuts.

According to David Crockett head football coach Kent Green, it’s no accident why such an incident would occur.

“Sports are important because it gives the community an identity,” Green said. “Our kids work hard to try to give our community something to be proud of. With the kids, there are life lessons to be learned in football. So much in life you can compare to what you face in a football game.”

There are other times when high school sports play an even bigger role. Sports may bring healing to a community which is hurting, bring awareness to a cause which affects nearly everyone or even bring a sense of normalcy after a national tragedy.

One of those instances happened last Friday night when David Crockett hosted South Greene in football, only one day after a bus crash which injured over two dozen Crockett students.

Pioneers offensive coordinator Drew Pettit recalled the team had started practice when a state trooper went zooming by around 90 mph.

Moments later, other troopers and Washington County Sheriff’s Department vehicles passed the practice field as did a number of ambulances. With everyone wondering what was happening, the coaches were informed of the situation by a player getting ready for a freshman game.

In the hours that followed came the tough decision of what to do next.

“(Crockett principal) Andy Hare did a fantastic job of handling the situation,” Pettit said. “The first thoughts that went through my mind were, ‘Do we need to go to school? Do we need to play football?’ After I got here, I realized how much better off we were than if we had been home.

“The pep rally that afternoon was a surreal moment. It reminded me a lot of 9/11. He addressed the school, talked about the injuries and everything. Then, he talked about how it was time to get back and play football. The guys put the 88 on their helmets for the bus number. Ultimately, they were really happy to get out there and play and to get things a little back the way they were before Thursday.”

The decision to play didn’t come without precedent.

Green pointed to the famous “Green Light Letter” which President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent to then Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Landis in January 1942.

“You go all the way back to World War II when President Roosevelt refused to suspend the baseball season in the spring of 1942,” Green said. “He said he wanted things to go along as normal. Sports and society are always going to be hand-in-hand. I guess all the way back to the ancient Greeks, it went hand-in-hand. Personally, I think sports is a microcosm of your society, and it was a big win for us, not just the football team, the football program, but it was a big win for our community and it helps the healing process.”

With the extra motivation, the Pioneers defeated South Greene 52-25 in what turned out to be a huge victory. But, the point is before the final result was reached, Crockett had already begun the healing process by simply playing the game. They had the community gather to support the team, the school and those involved in the accident.

While it’s easy to say sports is about more than wins and losses, Green said it’s not always the case.

“That’s why I coach at the high school level,” he said.

"I coached college football for 13 years and even in college, we tried to teach individuals to be better people and to be men. But, it’s still a business in college. In high school, we owe it to the kids to try to make them better people.”

For Green, the responsibility of teaching his players to be better people and to give back to the community is something he takes personal. After all, it was passed down to him from his father, Ken, who spent nearly three decades as the head football coach at Daniel Boone High School.

“I learned a lot of lessons on the playing field when I was in high school that I still carry today,” Green said. “I’m ashamed to say I probably can’t diagram a sentence, but I can tell you how to run the Power I 84 that my dad taught me.”

Playing for a cause and beyond

The Science Hill volleyball team is not unique that it has a night devoted to breast cancer awareness. Other athletic teams from different area high schools participate in the program, as do the college teams like the University of Tennessee and East Tennessee State women’s basketball teams and even the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

Science Hill volleyball coach Louise Stallworth pointed out it’s such a far-reaching program because nearly every family is affected by some form of cancer.

“All of our girls when they were introduced for the game, another name was announced of a person who either has breast cancer or some other type of cancer,” she said. “They dedicate the game to that person, and usually it’s someone in their family.”

Like Green, she sees her sport teaching valuable lessons beyond the scoreboard. Time spent in practice is a lot more than simply learning the best way to hit the ball across the net.

“They learn how to trust people, not to judge people and to work hard,” Stallworth said. “Players have to learn the type of work ethic it takes to get along in our society. I am a very strong disciplinarian, and if they don’t get discipline at home, they are going to get it from me.

“I teach them life isn’t always going to be fair and if they want to be successful in this world, they’re going to have to earn it. I want to instill in them, not only that work ethic, but they have to have character of loyalty, honesty and all the things we want to do all the time.”

Results can be a big part of the teaching, especially the times when a player faces a setback.

“One of the first questions I ask a player who wants to try out for my team is, ‘Do you love to win or do you hate to lose,’” Stallworth said. “A competitor will answer that, ‘I hate to lose.’ Because if you lose, you carry that with you through the night, the next day, all the way until you get to play again. If you win, it’s a temporary elation and joy, but those losses stay with you a lot longer and a real competitor hates to lose.”

Beneath her hard exterior, Stallworth has a heart of gold evident by the relationship she shares with so many ex-players. She also knows that is her lasting legacy, not the final tally of victories.

“I’ve been coaching 30 years and I know those wins and losses won’t make a difference 40 years from now,” she said. “But 40 years from now, these girls will be thinking about the lessons they learned in high school volleyball if I do my job.”

A sense of normalcy

The early morning of September 11, 2001 was picture perfect in Northeast Tennessee. The sky glistened with a bright blue color, appearing as if it had been taken off an artist’s rendition of Utopia.

An hour later, the mood darkened as the United States was hit with a series of terrorist attacks which left over 3,000 dead and a country which would be changed forever.

That afternoon, the Happy Valley High School football team went out to practice for its Friday night game against West Greene. The game had extra meaning to offensive coordinator Drew Pettit, a West Greene alumni. Still, he found himself like everyone else, simply going through the motions when the team attempted to practice.

“You go out on Tuesday afternoon to practice and it was just the weirdest thing, nothing normal about it,” Pettit recalled. “You went out and tried to practice, but everybody’s mind wasn’t there.”

As the week progressed, all the major sports leagues as well as the major colleges decided to postpone their games. The NFL moved its entire schedule back a week, while the Tennessee at Florida football game was put off until the end of the season.

However, the TSSAA decided it would go on with high school football games. Most teams decided to go with the traditional Friday night schedule, but Happy Valley and West Greene opted to play on Saturday night.

In a week of uncertainty, the obvious question was whether should they play at all. People had rushed to the gas pumps in a panic on Tuesday following the attacks and throughout the week, their emotions ranged from fear to sympathy to anger.

A smaller than normal crowd showed up for the game. They was subdued, visibly tense, wondering if such a gathering of people might make them easy targets for other attacks. When the national anthem played, it was a time when everyone seemed to pay extra attention and take a little more pride in their country. Once the game kicked off, for the first time all week, something familiar was in the air.

“That Saturday night, it was the first time all week things seemed normal,” Pettit said. “But, it was an extra emotional game and you wanted to put more into that one.

“Obviously, you look back 11 years later and it’s still not back the way it was. Things have changed so much, but that night took us back a little before that happened.”

Happy Valley won the game 30-10, but Pettit knew the score was secondary to simply getting back out there and living life as normal as possible.

It’s not just in times of tragedy, he sees the challenges. Over the years, he has been made aware of students living in situations he could only imagine living through at that same age.

“One thing I’ve learned in 17 years of coaching, these kids all come from different situations and it might not be a perfect situation,” he said. “I was very fortunate growing up and I lived in a bubble. A lot of these kids have difficult situations at home where we don’t know about.

“The great thing about football, whether they’re a football player, a cheerleader of someone in the band, that’s who they are on Friday night. Everyone comes from the same background at that point.”

Like Green and Stallworth, he sees the lessons through sports that go well beyond the numbers posted.

“Even the great programs like Maryville, Alcoa and places like that, they deal with adversity on a day-to-day basis,” Pettit said. “Football teaches you to deal with that adversity. Win or lose, that’s the great thing about sports and it’s why we do it.”

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