On Football By Herman Bell

Sedptember 2013

Some thoughts on football as it is formally taught and as it is played in a correctional setting from a coach's perspective. The basic principles highlighted in this discussion are applicable to any team sport.

Everything I have learned about football has taught me that it is about more than simply blocking and tackling on the playing field. Football is a team sport, and any team sport or collective endeavor clearly highlights the importance of communication. Even as babies, we know that no single somebody watched over us until we were able to do it for ourselves, because people have historically depended on each other in order to survive.

In football, good communication skills require that each teammate is reading from the same page. Whether a team is throwing or running the ball, the intended objective can only be achieved when players work in concert with each other. Good communication skills require a restrained presence of mind on the field, though the coach may visibly want to do something else to the player. Each player has a job to do; failure to perform expected action on anyone's part usually causes a sack or a big loss, and a series of sacks and big losses can demoralize a team and cause it to self-destruct. Guys new to the game who are not "getting it" usually throw up mental blocks and become intimidated. A calm and level-headed approach is required when teaching football, because that is what actually gets the job done.

What also helps in getting the job done is organizational structure, and it begins with the head coach. In college, he answers to his department head; in high school, he answers to the principal or the Board of Education; in jail, he answers to the players.

Head coaches are powerful guys when you consider what the average individual is after, especially a youngster. What are they after? First of all, football is a contact sport, rough and demanding, and in my view few, if any, true football players are ordinary people. They are more apt to chase their rainbows for that mythical pot of gold and to follow their dreams than an ordinary person, who is never moved in quite that way to find self-identity, challenges, and fulfillment. Second, there are individuals who join a football team to discover something about themselves and to prove something to others. They stand in the public square as it were to undergo a kind of rite of passage to gain the manly virtues of courage, self-discipline, and athletic prowess. Football involves more than blocking and tackling.

Coaches also stand before the public square, yet players know them to be ruthless and strict, demanding and belligerent, and that they will not hesitate to bench even a starting player if his performance is ineffective. Some coaches tolerate a certain amount of physical weakness and the occasional mental lapse, while other coaches lead and teach by example. They are more involved in the actual teaching of the game -- in explaining the logic behind what a ball player is expected to do and how he is to conduct himself when on the field. They are more like a father figure or elder brother. They tend to run with the team, get in the dirt with the players during drills and demonstrations of technique. They usually inspire their players. Getting the job done in football is the bottom line.

Getting the job done also require a good attitude in team sport. On the grid iron there is but one attitude: belief in one's self and in ones ability to get the job done, and take no hostages. Their motto is: "Winners never quit and quitters never win."

In a sport that has its fair share of bone-bruises, jammed fingers and the occasional broken ones, broken legs, swollen knees, cuts and separated shoulders, the game of football has great disdain for pain and injuries on the field. Football is a game that is challenging to both mind and body. Stoic indifference to pain is a virtue held in high regard among football players. A player is expected to suck-up the pain until the end of the game; only the coach will take an injured player off the field. Any player who knuckles under to pain and lack of resolve is not well liked in football; he fails to live up to expectation. Excuses for ineffective performance is held in cold contempt. Nothing is more despicable in a football player than one who gives excuses for not getting it right. Football players hate excuses.

In this light, football is a Spartan sport, martial in nature. Football calls for a person of great courage and self-discipline. Football is an army in training. The martial nature of football further explains why ball players have low tolerance for explanations and excuses. Get the job done is what they say. And in getting the job done, for a back or receiver not to catch the ball or run well in a game is tantamount to a personal defeat.

In football, we learn to live with defeat; we wallow in it, sometimes for days and weeks, agonizing over what we could have done to win the game. But eventually it goes away and you become stronger, wiser, and hopefully more determined from the experience. This is how a team begins to coalesce and function as a unit. Linemen take it extra-personal when a fellow lineman is disconcerted and not doing well with his man or is straight-up getting his as kicked. He then resolves to block or tackle with more determination; when individuals function with this kind of intensity, a human machine is created that can march up and down a football field.

Football in a correctional setting has its own ethos and values, and at times it can be entertaining. For example, other than the occasional game of "touch football" on the streets when growing up, some inmates may have never played football before in their life and yet swear-to-God that they were "All World" in athletic prowess "out there." To the average inmate, it seems important to have a history, to be from somewhere - even, in some instances, when they have to lie. How an inmate performs on the field tells whether or not he was a tiger on the field in his street life.

Some of these inmates learn the game well, while others do less well; but most of them, to their credit, keep at it. Team braggarts -- and every team seems never short in supply of this type, with their customary cocky, devil-may-care attitude -- are the unofficial cheerleaders and mouth piece for their team. Selling "wolf tickets" and taunts about the damage one team will do to the other is what they do best. While the boasting and bragging goes on in carnival-like atmosphere, the spectators, like everyone else, go about their business. They know which team is likely to win and bet accordingly, regardless of the point-spread or the loud talk.

Some inmate ball players hate conditioning. The ones who hate it the most are usually fat, greasy, out-of-shape, loud-mouth, lazy individuals with poor work ethics, who will shamelessly rely on every imaginable excuse to get around as much conditioning as they can. But once the smell of pigskin and the growing excitement of the game get to these guys, they usually get in pretty good shape.

Football practice and inmate programs create a problem of towering proportions for ball players. Some players are unable to attend practice because a certain number of their daily program hours has to be devoted to their program assignment, i.e., school, vocational shop, industry. This frequently causes ball players to miss practice and is usually the cause of inmate teams not playing as well as they might under more favorable circumstances. But on balance, despite the many obstacles in getting the job done, inmate football is lively. Some of them, at least the few good teams I have seen play in NY DOC, play well enough to compete and beat some of the better college teams. However, no one could be held accountable for the language used on the field.

With all the problems mentioned above, the game is still played. However, in my view, tackle football in NY DOC is on a decline. Not long ago, any jail in the DOC that sponsored tackle football could easily field four teams, sometimes even five. Now, a jail can barely field three teams. Coaches who stand on the practice field looking over new recruits often speak of the noticeable decline in the number of individuals coming to camp for tryouts. It means there will be even fewer individuals to pass on this marvelous tradition.

Prison administrators cheer on this decline according to what some of the older ball players will tell you; their view is that the administrators see football injuries as costly to the state during these times of fiscal restraint.

Regardless how this issue is finally played out, experience shows that once this sport is phased out of the jails, prison officials will never permit its return; and that would be a sad commentary for a sport that has helped and continues to help build strong character in so many young men.

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