“Hey, coach, can I talk to you?”
It was a phrase we preached to our athletes from day one. As a group (coaches), we collectively do not like surprises. If you have to miss practice, communicate. If you got hurt goofing around outside of practice, communicate. If you feel you are not getting enough playing time, communicate.
Part of our job as head coaches and mentors to young students/athletes is to build their communicative skills as they transition into adulthood. We stressed that when you look a coach in the eye and communicate in a mature adult way, respect will be gained on both sides.
“Hey, Coach, can I talk to you?” is the question all coaches want to hear from their players. (Shutterstock – Ron Alvey)
In the summer of 2016, I experienced an interaction with an athlete that seemed like a punch in the gut initially, but as time marched forward, the interaction transitioned into a powerful story.
Vinny G was a Marine City High School young man everyone enjoyed. He had an infectious smile. He conversed with students and teachers like an old, friendly soul. He was extremely intelligent, an Eagle Scout, and a hell of an athlete. Vinny was the type of student who blended into a wide range of subsets in the school, which complemented his communication skills.
As a sophomore, we brought Vinny up to the varsity football squad mainly because he was physically and mentally ready. He was our fullback, and during game 5 of that year, Vinny tore up his knee on a fluke play. He was tripped up at the line of scrimmage, and as he tried to regain his balance, the force imparted on his leg caused his ACL and medial meniscus to tear. He was out for the season, and the injury required surgery.
To no one’s surprise, Vinny healed from the surgery quickly and attacked his rehab. He seemed poised for his comeback and attended all our preseason workouts, oozing with his branded positivity. As we neared the start of the season, Vinny approached and uttered the words we have preached so often, “Hey coach, can I talk to you.”
Vinny shared that he lacked confidence in his knee and felt he was not ready to play football at a high level. He had decided to play tennis in the fall and wanted to make sure he told me face to face. In preparation for this blog, I spoke with Vinny recently and asked if this action was on his own or if his parents made him talk to me. Vinny stated, “No, coach, that was all me; I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t tell you face to face.”
My initial reaction was immediate anger, and I had to pause not to let that influence my response. My anger was twofold: how could he let me down after I brought him up as a sophomore? How could I lose a kid to tennis? (No offense, tennis guys, I’m just sharing my immature reaction.)
My actual response deployed lessons learned from my high school head football coach Al Drath. Al leaned more empathetic than most football coaches and built lifelong relationships with his athletes.
I told Vinny, “I respect that you are telling me face to face. I will not lie, Vinny; I am disappointed but support your decision. I want you to think about continuing to rehab, and if your confidence comes back, you can join the team any time during the season. Remember Vinny, we sometimes make long playoff runs, so even if you rejoin in late October, I am fine with that.”
When the conversation ended, Vinny shook my hand and walked away. As I shared the news with other coaches, I quickly stopped disparaging comments and repeated, “He communicated the right way; he did what we preached!” As the school year started, I consciously tried to check on Vinny and see how he was doing. I continued to say hello to him in the hall daily and treated him no differently than any other player.
Vinny rejoined the team his senior year and was asked to change positions. We needed an offensive lineman, and because of Vinny’s strength and intelligence, I thought he could be an excellent guard in our wing T offense. “Coach, I will play wherever you need me,” was his response — another testament to Vinny’s character and team-first mentality.
He learned the position quickly and became so proficient that I demanded he tell the neighboring lineman what to do on virtually every play. Watching game films, I remember Vinny adjusting from one play to the next when facing larger opponents. It was a clinic on adjusting pad level and angles; this was his first year as a guard.
I remember getting choked up during our post-season banquet as I talked about Vinny and his journey with high school football. In addition to the great comeback story, Vinny also, daily without exception, would come up to me at the end of practice, weights, or a game and thank me for the experience. In my 33 years coaching football at Marine City, no other athlete ever did that as consistently as this young man.
Vinny is now just shy of a Chemistry degree at Oakland University and utilizes his skill set learned as an Eagle Scout as he refurbishes homes. He is a shining example of how athletes should communicate with their coaches. He is a player I will be proud of forever, and when we next talk, I will ask, “Hey Vinny, can I talk to you? I want to kick your ass in pickleball… let’s go.”
More Great Reading:
What My Parents Made Me Do When I Wanted to Quit the Team
Who Am I If I’m Not a ‘Sports Mom’ Anymore?
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