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Sportswriters occasionally have to confront their own athletic shortcomings.
I first realized this a few years after college, when I covered high school football for a season for a small local paper. The beat included Falls Church High School, my alma mater. I hadn’t been to the Falls Church football stadium since my senior year, when I was a talent-challenged offensive lineman on a small, overmatched Jaguars team. We won just three games that season, and on those nights when we weren’t actually routed, we showed flashes of rout-friendly ineptitude. I spent most of the year being bulldozed by stronger, faster defenders who were on their way to pile-driving our poor quarterback. (He sells heavy equipment in Northern Virginia now. Maybe there’s a connection.)
I’d never been burdened by delusions of adequacy when it came to my football career. So before arriving at my first assignment at Falls Church as a member of the media, I promised myself that I’d keep quiet about my alum status, to avoid the embarrassment that would inevitably result from any discussion of my on-field exploits. But down on the field, these latter-day Jaguars were playing as badly as my team used to, and I broke the promise. Right around the time Stuart High’s Charlie Garner scored the fourth of what would be six touchdowns, I blurted out to the press-box crew that I had once worn the home team’s green and gold.
The PA announcer, an old guy who had also worked games back in my day, heard me and asked who I was. Again, other than getting flagged for a few holding calls, nothing I’d ever done on a Friday night under the lights had been worth noting, but when I gave him my name he gushed as if I were really significant. As if I were, well, Charlie Garner: “I remember you! Welcome back!” Then he punched on the microphone and announced over the PA that a “very special guest” was in the press box. That would be me.
As my anonymous handle echoed throughout the bleachers, the crowd, as one…ignored me. I didn’t hear a single clap or see one head turn toward the booth and, I confess, I was listening and looking. An earlier announcement of the game-time temperature had elicited a more noticeable response. I stood up and waved anyway.
A very similar reaffirmation of my gridiron insignificance came over the weekend, when I met up with Wally Ake, now in his second season as defensive coordinator for the University of Maryland. Before coming to College Park, Ake had coached defense at Arkansas, Air Force, Clemson, and Rice.
More importantly, before going to the college level some 19 years ago, Ake had been my coach at Falls Church High.
He had left Falls Church after the dismal three-win season during my senior year, and I hadn’t talked to him since. I wanted to check in with him about the recent tragedy at St. John’s College High School, where a football player had collapsed and died after practice. The incident, which repeats itself at some area school pretty much every year, had prompted local media to again question the humanity of coaches, and I figured Ake would have some opinions on that.
But from all the news accounts I’ve read, the St. John’s coaches tend to players’ needs a lot more than ours ever did. That change might have at least as much to do with the change in what’s acceptable coaching conduct as it does with my former mentor’s behavior. What was considered normal years ago is now considered worthy of criminal indictment. At Falls Church, water breaks were a perk, not a right, even during twice-a-day, three-and-a-half-hour practices on a dust-bowl field under a mid-August sun, when typical workouts included 220-yard wind sprints, interminable crab walks, and various head-banging drills that seem worthless and utterly bizarre to me now. (The most sadistic of these was “Bull in the Ring,” a routine where one player stands in the center of a circle of teammates and takes helmet-to-helmet blows from as many as he can without going down; the point was to enhance a player’s pain threshold while lowering his IQ, apparently.)
Coaches broke up the boredom between drills by doling out whatever dose of verbal or physical abuse they deemed necessary. And we took it. If it was true that what didn’t kill us would make us stronger, well, we should have been a teamful of world beaters. Nobody died, so nobody complained. We knew that football practice was the closest most of us in the dazed and confused, post-Vietnam generation would ever get to boot camp. So we viewed Ake as our drill instructor. We could tell that he loved the game and liked working with us at the time, head coaches got just $1,200 a year from Fairfax County so we didn’t mind the tough love. That was the way coaches acted.
I wanted to see if Ake still maintained his drill instructor persona. He still looks almost exactly the same as he did when he roamed the Falls Church sidelines. But he’s not the same guy, he says.
“I still want to win, but I control my temper now. I control my tongue better than I did. And I’m sensitive to a player’s feelings now, which I know I didn’t used to be,” he says. “And I guess we’ve all learned that tough guys can drink water and stay tough.”
Ake attributes some of his conversion from the brutal taskmaster of my high school days to the kinder, gentler college coach to a spiritual awakening that came a year after he left Falls Church. Rules changes also factor in, he confessed….
“You can’t treat a player like you used to anymore,” he says. “But I’m all for the changes. Even if the rules weren’t changed, I’d do things differently now because it’s what’s right.”
At the end of our interview, I told him that as hard as he had been on us, I always regarded him as a righteous and honorable man. He said thanks, and that he was glad to see me again, as if he remembered me. I don’t think he really did, but it was nice of him to say so. —Dave McKenna