Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bishops, Cardinals and Trick Plays

I started working with kids in the summer of 1976 when I was the Assistant Summer Rec Director for the City of Chamberlain. Eventually I was the director and went on to coach baseball, basketball and football. I have worked with kids in some way ever since - some forty plus years.

When my wife and I moved from Omaha to Des Moines in 1984, I volunteered to coach a baseball team. The boys were 12-14 years old and we had a good summer. I enjoyed working with them and I believe the boys had fun. We were respectable - I think we were about .500.

Toward the end of the season, one of the fathers asked me if I'd be interested in coaching the St. Theresa's Cardinals. We belonged to St. Theresa's Parish and several of the boys on the baseball team would be on the football team so I agreed to coach them.

So later that summer, I went to an organizational meeting at one of the other Catholic churches in Des Moines. I could tell from the minute I entered the room that this was not going to be like my baseball experience earlier that summer. The room smelled like testosterone and I think I saw guys keep getting up and peeing in the corner!! This room was full of guys determined to relive their football glory days!

To listen to these coaches at the "coaches meeting", one would have thought that it was press day at the Big 10 and the doors to the room would soon open and the media would flock in. This was JUNIOR HIGH FOOTBALL!!! It made me think of this!

There were eight teams in the Des Moines Catholic Football League. Most represented one parish but a couple were combination parish teams. These teams all funneled players into the local Catholic school powerhouse - Des Moines Dowling.

I got a pretty good idea of what I was in for that day. The rest unfolded the first day of practice. We had some bodies that could be molded into linemen but the arms and legs were those of linemen as well! We did have good kids with good attitudes.

As the season unfolded, it became obvious the the Cardinals did not have the talent to match up with the other teams. They fought valiantly each week but came up short - a lot short. Like in we did not score any points the first four weeks of the season.

I didn't know it then, but came to learn that St. Theresa's was a long standing cellar dweller in the league. Apparently if you wanted to be a standout at Dowling High School, the path through St. Theresa's grade school wasn't the route!

Once the pads were checked out and the Cardinals took to the practice field, I could understand why. The kids had not been taught any fundamental football skills. Things as simple as a three point stance, blocking and tackling were foreign concepts to most of them.

The kids worked hard and we did what we could to install an offense but the games came too early for any kind of success to follow immediately. We lost our first several games - by big scores. We didn't score.

One would think that a Catholic football league would have some kind of "mercy rule" other than mothers doing laps around the rosary in the stands. The other coaches did not find beating the Cardinals to be satisfactory, they needed to pound them into submission. It seemed like an opportunity for some of the younger players to play when the Cardinals took the field against them, but they did not want to be the team that allowed the Cardinals to score.

The St. Theresa's Cardinals made the Bad News Bears look like a powerhouse!

After a month of this, I had enough. We needed some kind of success to build on and I thought a simple touchdown would make the practices a bit more tolerable for the kids. So I decided that we may lose in week 5, but we were going to light the scoreboard for the first time. We installed a gadget play (some might call it a trick play - but be careful of that!) so that we might score.

Of course, we would have to execute the trick play in order to score so it was certainly no given that we would put points on the board. But we had to do something.

I introduced "The Play" in practice that week with much fanfare - asking them if they were finally ready to score a touchdown. After a positive response, I assured them that if they would execute this play correctly, there was no doubt in my mind that we would score. That drew a few smiles and fist pumps from the 0-5 Cardinals.

So we explained how we would pull this play off. At the proper time, while our team was in their huddle, the sideline would scream for one of our receivers to get off the field, leading our opponents to believe we had too many players on the field. As the receiver ran toward the sideline, we would break the huddle and come to the line of scrimmage.

The sideline would continue to scream at the receiver as he hustled toward the sideline. But just before he got off the field, he would stop at the line of scrimmage and come set. The quarterback would take the snap, throw the ball to the receiver near the sideline and he would run for his life! - and the end zone! Hopefully the opposing defenders had given up on him thinking he was trying to get off the field before the snap.

So we spent the better part of an entire practice that week working on "The Play". We taught them what and when to yell at the receiver. We felt confident that we could pull this off because it required no blocking, which we weren't good at anyway!

Game day! We knew that we could only make it work if we used it at the right time. We had to have the ball near mid-field to be able to pull it off and we had spent entire games mired deep in our own territory.

But we got lucky. We were to receive the opening kickoff and the opposing kicker kicked the ball out of bounds. We got the ball near the 40-yard line. I wasn't going to take any chances of not being able to use our secret weapon. We would run it on the second play - providing we didn't turn the ball over on the first play. We didn't.

The Cardinals executed the play perfectly. The quarterback threw a spiral to the receiver and he sprints 60+ yards to pay dirt! Not only did the Cardinals finally score, but they took a 6-0 lead!

Every Cardinal, including the ones on the bench, sprinted for the end zone to participate in the celebration. One kid even threw his helmet into the air on the sideline. The helmet nearly came down on my head! That would have been perfect. Cardinals finally scored while their coach enters the concussion protocol!!!

As the Cardinals were celebrating, I noticed the officials were huddling. Then a flag was thrown into the air. What could we have done wrong? We had worked on coming set before the snap. We made sure they knew who could and couldn't be on the line of scrimmage. It certainly looked like everyone had done their job correctly.

The referee came over to me and told me that they had thrown a flag for "Unsportsmanlike Conduct". Just as I was getting ready to apologize for the kids behavior and tell him that they got a little too excited because it was the first time they had scored all season long, he said they were waiving off the touchdown.

When I asked him why, he told me that "trick plays weren't allowed in the Des Moines Catholic Football League". I asked him to define a "trick play". He ignored me and started to walk off the penalty from the original line of scrimmage.

Now let me suggest that the game of football is full of diversions, fakes and tricks. What we call a "play action pass" is nothing more than a fake hand off to the running back before throwing the football. Offenses have players moving in a myriad of different directions to confuse defenses.

I was furious! I walked out onto the field and asked if a fake hand off was a trick play. One of the officials told me that it was not. I asked what the difference between what we had just pulled off and the defense was and he told me that a fake hand off was a conventional football play!

What! What in the hell are you talking about!

Everyone in the stands that day knew that the Cardinals had about as much of a chance of winning the game that afternoon as they did of playing in the Super Bowl later that season. Those six points were likely to be the highlight of the season. This was about the ego of the other coaches.

So I gathered the Cardinals around me. I was crushed to see the looks on their faces as I told them what the officials had called. It was unbelievable to me that we had grown men who would steal this tiny bit of success from these kids.

St. Theresa's Cardinals enjoying a post-game treat
I gave them permission to walk off the field that day. I'm not proud of that but I had seen disgraceful behavior by adult men and I was tired of it. The Cardinals left the field.

They returned the next two weeks to be pounded into submission for the seventh and eighth times that season. They didn't win a game that year. They didn't score a point that year. That "trick play" was as close as they got.

But they did have a helluva pizza party at the end of the year at Scornovacca's Pizza on the coach. They ate a lot of pizza. They laughed a lot. They had fun. Kinda what junior high football should be about. Unless you let adults interfere.

That was enough for me. I never coached football again.

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