It’s no secret to most readers who have spent any time following my blog that football is my first love. I began playing the sport when I was in first grade, although it wasn’t really until junior high that I developed my passionate affection for it. That’s right around the age when I matured to a level that I was able to understand just how special a game football could be. And it’s also the time when I began realizing that I had the ability to excel at it, particularly at the quarterback position.
When I was a freshman I was invited to play Varsity football by the head coach of our high school team. That offer made me feel pretty special. All of my classmates would continue in junior high until they became sophomores, but I would have the unique opportunity to gain tremendous experience with a bunch of upperclassmen. I couldn’t pass it up. So I accepted coach’s offer and joined the rest of the guys for camp in August. It was an intimidating experience at times but one that looking back I would not trade for anything. I’ll never forget that first walk from the locker room to the stadium on the evening of our first home game. There was absolutely nothing like it.
My freshman season I didn’t see any real action except in mop up duty and at our JV contests on Monday nights. But by sophomore year, I had earned the starting quarterback position. And I took center under the direction of a new head coach, and a whole new offensive scheme. Our new leader was a proponent of the Delaware Wing T which is a run dedicated offense with pulling guards and wingbacks. We don’t need to go into the details of what it entails. Let’s just say that it would certainly not be my scheme of choice if I were coaching today. Quite honestly, it may not have truly been his either but it would not be until a bit later that I would find out that it was really the only type of offense that he knew. And that was going to be an obstacle in the way of our team’s success.
My high school was nothing like those programs that you see highlighted on TV shows like Friday Night Lights. We had very little tradition and a track record for being at the bottom of the league year in and year out. The expectations were not by any means high. But we were in a position to begin to turn things around in 1998. We were young, but we had some talent. And on paper it certainly appeared that we had the ability to compete with many of the teams in our league. But we struggled to execute the Wing T running game well. We would find ourselves in 3rd and long possession after possession, limited by our playbook and becoming more and more predictable to the defense as the weeks passed and teams began taking a closer look at us on film.
The good thing about our limited success rushing the football was that it did give me opportunities to put the ball in the air, which was my greatest strength as a quarterback. In fact, my sophomore season I set a county record for passing yards in a game on our homecoming with just 26 attempts. I was excelling not as a result of good coaching, but as a result of my own will to succeed. Most times I was scrambling well outside of the pocket to find open receivers downfield on long yardage situations. And I became a bit of a savior for a coach who had no idea whatsoever how to make adjustments. His limited bag of tricks left our team starving in passing situations. But I was somehow able to make it work anyway.
I can recall vivid memories of those moments in games when I would look to the sideline for the play and he’d hand me the most predictable call on the sheet. I knew that the defense was prepared and that they understood exactly what was coming. Play action on third and twelve was not going to work. We weren’t going to freeze anyone. The defense was going to be on my heels the second that I took the ball from under center. Was this really the best that he had? I felt many times that he could see the frustration and discouragement on my face as I took his call. And then he’d nod me back to huddle and yell, “Make a play, Matty!”
Man, did I resent hearing those words. Why should all of the burden fall on me to make a play? Why was it my job to save the team and rescue his reputation? What was it that he was bringing to the table to see to it that we were successful? How about you make a play, coach? Start adapting to the game of football. Make some adjustments. Maximize the talent that you have. Stop handcuffing us and instead allow us to put ourselves in a position to succeed. There were a million things running through my mind in those moments. But ultimately, I would head back to the huddle and do the only thing that I knew how as a competitor…I would make something happen in desperate circumstances.
Looking back on those experiences I am now able to see that while it was very frustrating for me at the time, my coach was truly paying me the greatest compliment that I could ever receive. He was showing his faith in my ability to take a hopeless situation and turn it into something positive. He understood that he was incapable of dialing up the perfect recipe for success on third and long, so he’d simply hand me the flour and say “go bake the cake”. And as much as his unwillingness to adapt to the game drove me crazy, I did enjoy having the ability to improvise in trying situations. I was always at the top of my game when I was under pressure to succeed. So I embraced the challenging predicaments that he put me in because they allowed the best of who I was as an athlete to shine.
In life, we’re going to find ourselves in lots of third and long type situations. And we’re not always going to have the perfect team surrounding us in support. We won’t always have the most equipped coach on the sidelines directing our course, either. And there will be times when our surroundings will not offer us any favors. We may even find ourselves lacking any true backing on the day that we’re slated to take on our toughest opponent. But we can’t quit. There is another down to be played, and we came here to compete. So we will need to make the decision to go out and make a play anyway. If we’re going to be successful, we’re going to need to make things happen without always having the proper resources and support behind us. True champions make the decision to win when all of the odds are against them.
There’s a popular saying out there that goes “God will never give you more than you can handle”. I tend to agree with this. I believe that God will offer the strong and the determined the opportunity to succeed in the most demanding circumstances because He knows that they are equipped with the tools necessary to handle them. So we need not blame those around us for the difficulties that we encounter. Because the adversities that we will face due to limited support will only serve to promote the development of our greatest talents and skills. And while those talents and skills may not be sufficient enough to convert every third and long, they will help to put us in a position to win more games than we lose. And they’ll promote a resiliency within us that can never be taken away by anyone.
So life dealt you an unfair blow and the world seems to have turned its back on you. I know one person that still believes in you…and I can hear Him offering you his encouragement from above…”go make a play anyway…this is not something beyond your ability to handle….this is where you shine.”
May God Bless!