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Scenes from a D3 Football Game, SJU vs. Thomas More University

Image gojohnnies.com

The game starts gray and cold. The temperature is in the low 20s, and there is a noticeable breeze. Light snow is falling, but the weather forecast says it shouldn’t last. Alas, the weather forecast is wrong, and the snow picks up. By late in the second quarter, the field is white.  A guy with a shovel on the sideline keeps running out every few plays to clear a two foot wide path so the players can see the goal line.  The teams play on, oblivious, even seeming to enjoy sliding tackles and diving for passes, cushioned by a few inches of powder.

Half-time arrives. Every November, during the football game closest to Veterans Day, we honor the services of men and women in the Armed Forces. We invite an active duty alumnus back to be honored and to represent all the alumni and fans who have served.  This year, the brigadier general waits quietly on the sideline as time winds down.  Once the second quarter ends, many of the Johnnies, rather than heading right for the locker room on a chilly day, take a detour to shake this alum’s hand and thank him for his service.  He is surprised and touched by this gesture.  Later that afternoon, he leaves his alma mater feeling uplifted and hopeful for the future.

Image Jennifer McNelly

The field is now covered in snow, and the athletic director and assistant director have a problem. They have to figure out how to clear the field during halftime.  Shovels are rounded up and handed out to a small crew of student workers.  And then, a bit like the parable of the loaves and fishes, other students, attending as fans, come out of the stands and ask for shovels too.  The group – including many practiced Minnesotans – sets to work, and the field is clear by the time the players return. The athletic staff are tickled pink.  Burgers and brats are rounded up to feed the crew, and the hungry students think they’ve been fed at a Michelin two-star restaurant.

The final gun sounds, and the two teams make their way across the field toward each other. Suddenly two or three Johnnies are on the ground, on their backs. Those in the press box look at each other perplexed.  Then they smile. The players are making snow angels on the field.

Image @ccarrIX via Twitter

The stadium is largely empty as two visiting fans make their way through the home team’s bleachers.  The visiting team came over 1500 miles on a bus, and these visiting parents drove almost that same distance.  Had the game turned out differently, the visitors might have had a chance at making the playoffs, but these parents are not disappointed. They had gotten to see their son play his last college football game in a beautiful setting.  As they moved toward the exit, they said that their son had always wanted to play a game in the snow, but since his college is in Kentucky, that had never happened, until today.  They think it was a sweetly fitting note on which to end his college career. The offensive lineman’s father says, “We will be cheering for the Johnnies in the playoffs. It would be great for our son to be able to say that his last game was played in the snow against the eventual national champions.”

Image gojohnnies.com

One of the Johnnies is interviewed about the game.  After some questions about the playoffs, he is asked what it was like to play in these weather conditions.  He smiles delightedly and says, “It was like being a kid again and playing snow football in your backyard.”

How many D1 football players had as much fun in their games before tens of thousands in the stadium and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers? I’d venture to say not very many.

By |November 13th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, Kudos|0 Comments

A Most Benedictine Coach

Listen…with the ear of your heart.  Prologue–The Rule of Saint Benedict.

John Gagliardi was born into an Italian-American family in 1926.  I never heard John talk about the role religion played in his upbringing, but it seems highly likely that a Catholic family in that era would have been regular church goers, prayed before meals, encouraged children to pray at bedtime, maybe said an occasional rosary together as a family, and for the adults to have had their own personal prayer life.  What was certain was that John did not have any exposure to the Benedictines.

When he was recruited from Carroll College in 1953, John did not know much about Saint John’s University, to say nothing of the Benedictine tradition that is the foundation of Saint John’s Abbey and University.  John, however, was deeply Benedictine even if he didn’t know it at the time, and, through grace or luck or both, he found himself at the perfect place to live out a 60-year Benedictine coaching vocation.

Much has been written about John’s coaching gifts and philosophy, but I have always thought that John’s success on the gridiron and far beyond was succinctly captured by the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict: Listen.

John was famous for being able to adjust a game plan in real time, particularly during halftime, to account for new information, changing conditions and the opposition’s own plans.  A player of John’s recounted how this happened.  “John relied on his players on the field to tell him what was happening on the ground and what they were experiencing in the game.  He would then take that information and use it to adjust what we were doing.  At halftime we would revise our game plan in order to use what his players were telling him.”  John was willing to listen and learn about football from his 20 year-old players.

John, of course, is most famous for his football success, but in a different era in college athletics, coaches often were called upon to coach multiple sports, often regardless of their knowledge of said sport.  In his time at Saint John’s, John coached track and field, a sport with its sprinters, shot putters and discus throwers that is at least tangentially related to football.

But John was also the Saint John’s hockey coach for five years, 1954-59.  The sport has hitting, like football, but the similarity ends there.  John knew nothing about hockey when he started.  In fact, at a time when practice was typically outdoors, John was known to call off practice when he got too cold standing on the edge of the rink, not a policy that a true hockey aficionado would countenance.

Yet among the 16 hockey coaches at Saint John’s who coached more than one season, John Gagliardi has the highest winning percentage, a fact he wryly loved to share with his young hockey coaching colleagues, including Olympian John Harrington who is number two on that list.

How did a guy who literally knew nothing about hockey—I’m not sure he could even skate—lead his teams to this success?  My hypothesis is that he simply listened.  He learned about hockey from his players.  He listened to what they suggested and shared about their individual abilities and each other’s talents, and then John built a team and let them play.

My favorite story of John’s listening comes from one of John’s early All-Americans.  This young man came to visit campus with his parents.  As they were touring with John, the young man noted, with some surprise and mild consternation, that John was talking almost exclusively to his mother, who thought that football was a “dumb” game.  As he eavesdropped on the conversation, he heard John say to his mother, “After your son graduates from Saint John’s, do you think he will go on to get an MD or a Ph.D.?”

On the way home, Mom made it clear that Saint John’s was the perfect place for this young man.  He went on the get a Ph.D.

Listen to understand.  Listen to learn.  Listen with empathy.  Listen with the ear of your heart.

Life lessons from Saint Benedict and John Gagliardi.

Rest in Peace, John Gagliardi, a Benedictine coach if ever there was one.

Posted on October 15, 2018, John Gagliardi Day in Minnesota.

By |October 15th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, History, Kudos|1 Comment

Football: Concussions and Character

Football players are back on campus at Saint John’s, thus signaling the official end of summer.  The imminent start to the football season has also raised perennial questions about football player safety, particularly around the issue of concussions.

Image of brain in human headThere was a little controversy recently at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days when University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said “he doesn’t believe it’s been proven that football causes the degenerative brain disease CTE and [he] offered a passionate defense of [the] sport.”

In this controversy, I found the medical issues, while important, less interesting than the defense of football Fedora gave.  He argued that to significantly change the nature of the game or to give up on the game altogether would lead to “the decline of our country.”

Fedora elaborated, saying:

A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general, I had a question for him. I said, “What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to every other military in the world?” He was like, “That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.” He said, “Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level, and the lessons that they learned from that game is what makes this [nation] great.”

Denise McAllister, commenting on the controversy agreed, writing:

Fedora has a point. Throughout human history, contact sports have been a means to strengthen men to protect their homes, clans, tribes, and countries. Through rough play and facing the power of other men on the field, men were trained to be warriors — a clear advantage for any community that wants to develop strong defenses.

Young men were knocked around in game-playing to toughen them up for life as well as war. There wasn’t much concern about their welfare because the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones were deemed a necessity. Of course, past generations didn’t have the benefit of science to show the long-term effects of these activities, but I would wager that even if they did, those generations wouldn’t change their behavior. Contact sports had an important place in society.
….
Moms and dads in the suburbs who are pushing to end football at all levels or keeping their kids from playing any risky sport don’t experience the daily struggles and physical threats faced by past generations. They enjoy the luxury of flaccidity. They don’t value football and its risks because they have experienced no need of the particular lessons taught by football. They’re so removed from hardship that they don’t even see the value of climbing trees.

Regardless of whether one finds these national defense arguments persuasive, I would argue that Fedora and McAllister make a valid point about tradeoffs that is important to remember.  Life is filled with risks.  Once one makes the decision to get out of bed in the morning, virtually every decision afterward has risks.  Playing football is such a decision.

As a Division III institution, Saint John’s University’s football program does not have the public relations or economic impact most Division I programs do, but our players face the same risks of injury that other college players do.  Every player, possibly with input from parents or physicians, must decide whether the potential risks of short or long term injury—the costs—are more than offset by their love of the game and all it gives them—the benefits.

I certainly know Johnnie football players who have expressed concern about letting their sons play the game they themselves did.  By implication, these same Johnnies might have made a different decision for themselves if they had had current medical information available when they played the game years or decades ago.

But I know a lot more Johnnie football players who not only do not regret college athletic choices but would not change them for the world, and they delight in their young sons’ and current Johnnie players’ love of the game.

Gagliardi on the sidelines

This thought experiment is made more interesting at Saint John’s because of John Gagliardi’s forward looking practice methods that minimized the risk of injury in practice decades before that became fashionable.  Johnnie football alums with full information about CTE risks might rightly calculate the risk of injury to their younger selves or their sons or current Johnnies as relatively low because of John’s choices then – and growing influence now – but game day contact and injuries remain a risk under any practice regime.

These Johnnies, who would relive their football days in a heartbeat, argue that beyond their simple love of the game, football and John and Gary (Fasching) taught them life lessons that continue to pay off for years and decades after they hang up their helmets: teamwork, graceful losing, magnanimous winning, courage, perseverance, etc. etc.  In short, football helped form their character.

Life lessons can be learned in many ways, but I think it is safe to say they can rarely be learned cost free.  Football has provided many generations of American boys and men pleasure and learning.  While there can be little doubt that playing football carries with it risks, especially of head injuries, that are real and far better understood than ever, those risks have to be set off against the real benefits football provides those who play.

Parents must make thoughtful and informed decisions for their sons, and young men must make such decisions for themselves, but each decision is personal and the answer is not obvious.

Concussions and character are inextricably intertwined in this most American of sports.

Football sidelineApproximately 175 young men reported for football practice in Collegeville last week.

SJU opens against UW-Stout on September 1.

Go Johnnies.

By |August 17th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|1 Comment