This is for every football player that is about to start their senior year. This column is for the senior athlete that needs hope, confidence, and advice. What do I know about what you’re feeling? A lot actually.
I know what it’s like to go into camp with nothing guaranteed and to hope to start when there is a starter in your class ahead of you. I know what it feels like to have two seniors that play my position (inside linebacker), started there the year before and I have to compete with them. I know what it’s like to play in a football-crazed state (Ohio). Where Friday nights, the whole town shuts down to go to the games. Where men in their 50s and 60s are ready to fight for their school and team on Friday nights.
Some of you might know the Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, and the Hall of Fame Game is the first game of the year to kick off football season. Ohio has such rivalries like Massillon vs. Canton McKinley, where books have been written about them and they’ve been chronicled in movies. We’re talking about a state that rivals “Friday Night Lights” in intensity when it comes to football. When I tell you I know what you’re feeling and the anxiousness you feel — I know what I’m talking about.
All of you have gone through conditioning drills and taken the physicals, and you’ve been on the field without pads, but we all know nothing happens until the pads are put on. On the football field is where it is decided, who wants to play football — and who wants to play football. There is a difference because a hungry football player is the best football player. As you see in the NFL, they talk about gotta eat.
Today, there is no more asking your friends do you think I’m good enough or better than so-and-so? No. All the talking is done — in a few short hours, the pads will be put on. There are some positions up for grabs. All you have to do is go out and take your position by out hitting and hustling your competition. The nice part of athletics is, it is you and the person across from you: the battle lines are drawn. Either you win or they win, on every play. In football even All-Americans are knocked down, they just don’t stay down.
For you seniors, this is it. There are no do-overs, this is the year you look back on and talk about and remember the rest of your lives. When you come back for reunions or hanging out with your friends, you’ll tell about your senior year.
If you play for a local team (Roswell, Goddard, Dexter, Gateway, Hagerman, etc.) you can’t worry about beating the other team until you beat out the person you’re competing against first; then you can worry about beating the opponent once you’ve secured your position.
Once the competition has ended, if you’re beaten out, become valuable to your team by knowing your role. Be a good teammate by staying ready and by keeping a good attitude, try to help your team win on the practice field by going hard. Help them get better by being encouraging and positive while striving to be the ultimate teammate.
Being the ultimate teammate is knowing your playbook, being prepared and not being a distraction. Be the solution, pay attention and stay in shape. If you’re a quarterback be listening to the calls when the signals are given: know what’s going on.
Pay attention to the defense — there may be something you notice that the coaches and quarterback playing haven’t noticed that you can tell them, that will lead to winning the game. Make sure you study film and you’re ready when called upon.
This is football: people do get injured. Be ready so that if you have to play you’ll be prepared to help your team win, not cost your team a game because you didn’t have a clue. For you seniors there is no next year or do-over.
Once again, your coaches may not have started you, but by not being prepared you have just validated their decisions.
So, I told you earlier in this column to believe in yourself and do your best no matter what it looks like. Here’s why: John Tallarico was 6-foot-2 and weighed 210 pounds and Bill Edwards was 6-foot-3 and weighed 220 pounds. Both would go on to play in college and were in my graduating class.
At my high school, we played both ways on offense and defense a lot of the time. Edwards was the starting fullback on offense and Tallarico was the tailback. On offense we ran out of the I backfield with a slotback — we were a primarily a running team. On defense, we ran a 52 defense.
We go through camp and I’m not on the starting defense. I’m rotating in for both of those guys after the first series — they’re tired from going both ways. I wasn’t going to start but I would play a lot. I wanted to start as a senior.
I wanted to feel the thrill of running out of the tunnel in my uniform and breaking through the signs the cheerleaders had made, with the stands packed, and to hear my name over the public address system as the announcer introduced the starting defense at home games on Friday nights.
I will never forget the last practice of two-a-days, it was on a Thursday morning. We have meet-the-team that night and a cookout. There’s a scrimmage on Friday night at home against Heath Catholic. Coach Murray says, “Last play of the preseason.” He called 19 toss which is a pitchout to the left. I had just come off the field and was getting a drink of water when the play was being run.
Our quarterback, Brian Hill took the snap from center and tossed the ball to Tallarico who went left and didn’t go full speed like he always did on that play. He started to slow down for some unexpected reason when a tackler on the scout team collared him around the shoulders and bent him backward. When the whistle blew, Tallarico didn’t get up, he had to be helped off the field and taken to the hospital.
Tallarico suffered a broken ankle and would miss seven games of the season. It meant that much to him — that he rehabilitated so hard that he was able to play the last three games of his senior season. You never want to see someone injured and Tallarico was better than I was, but at the time I didn’t realize it. I just wanted to play and start as a senior.
I was given the starting job, but it wasn’t that easy because we had a kid by the name of Dave Scott move into the area from Florida and he played inside linebacker. Scott was awesome at reading his guard keys and delivering a forearm to guards when they tried to block him. Looking back now, the only thing that separated us was he didn’t run as well as I did and he didn’t know the system as well as I did.
My point is: it doesn’t matter what it looks like, things can change in an instant. Stay ready for your opportunity. There are no guarantees in life and once you get the position you have to produce to keep it.
Finally, I did get to be introduced as a starter and run through the tunnel and break the paper the cheerleaders made. I would love to say that we won state, but we went 7-3. I made All-District and was voted Most Improved Player my senior year. I went from nothing to being filled with the confidence to achieve my goals and dreams — and for some senior this year the same thing will happen to you and you’ll be on a path to living your dream.
Don’t quit, and go until the whistle. Seniors strap up and go hard.