Dave Paxton

There was a picture of Tristin Wirfs in the Des Moines Register Tuesday, announcing that he would be back with the University of Iowa team after getting drunk and being arrested for OWI, trying to take two other guys home on a motor scooter. They drew the attention of police because they were laughing boisterously.

Really. Three drunks (including one that weighs over 300 pounds) on a motor scooter. And you wonder why people leave the coaching profession for jobs picking tomatoes or fishing for sharks.

I saw Wirfs close up when Albia played Mount Vernon in the UNI-Dome. He is a marvelously talented athlete with a brain apparently the size of a pea. And you wonder, what was the kid thinking?

I have this affinity for coaches. My brother was a football coach for 10 years before entering the ministry (who better knows the power of prayer than a football coach?). My wife was a drama coach for four or five years. My high school football coaches, Ommen and Kolpin had a profound effect on the direction of my life, as did a number of coaches I have covered over the years. My kids benefited from terrific high school coaches and my middle daughter suffered two years at the hands of a coach who was in over her head at the college level.

I still liked her and I had empathy for what she faced with an undersized, injury riddled Central College women’s basketball team.

A few of the kids I played sports with in high school, and sadly many more I’ve covered as a career community newspaper guy, had (and have) the idea that they were a gift to coaches and their respective teams. They looked at practice time as an option to attend if they didn’t have something better to do. Some had a sense of entitlement and quit the minute another player beat them out for a position on the team.

I’ve been a knucklehead on and off most of my life, but it never, ever occurred to me that I was entitled to anything on a team I played on and the gift was a gift offered to me from my coaches, and more importantly, from my parents.

I’ll admit the times were different when I was playing three and occasionally four sports in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. We had 41 juniors and seniors on my senior football team and coaches kept a four-deep roster. To make the second string was laudable. To stand atop the position chart was maybe the greatest feeling in the world. Knowing there were at least two guys, likely as good as you, chomping at the bit to take your position, was an amazing motivating factor.

To be offered a chance to play by a coach was the moon and the stars.

Even more so (my parents never made a big deal out of it) my older brother (and later younger siblings) and I knew that our play came at a sacrifice to my parent’s farming operation. This was still in the era where farm kids were needed for serious manual labor to work on the farm. For us to play football in the fall meant two or three hours each day my dad didn’t have the help he needed to bring in the harvest. To run track in the spring meant filling the planter boxes himself and coming in early to chore instead of having his boys helping. Baseball in the summer meant shutting down our haying effort at three or four in the afternoon, the prime time to get work done.

It also meant for us a short turn-around from practice, to supper and putting on layers of sweatshirts and coats to help bring in harvest in the dark and getting up earlier than any of the city kids on the team to work hogs on Saturdays.

We never felt entitled to much of anything and between the fear of letting our coaches down and disappointing our parents, we stayed out of trouble and kept our grades at acceptable levels. (My mother would argue that the only time my grades were really good was during football season when I was terrified of facing one of my coaches.)

Playing high school sports was a gift. It still is if people look at it correctly.

My offensive line coach, a fearsome man named Ken Kolpin, was a near perfect metaphor for being politically incorrect and the tone of his voice and his use of often times prickly verbage could make all-state seniors tear up. In a moment of brutal candor after an off-season violation by one of our players, he gathered us together and said, “Boys, you’ve got your entire life to drink and screw around. You’ve got four years to play football.”

You can take that philosophy and apply it practically anywhere in the public school setting, where parents join faculty and administration to slavishly provide the best facilities, the best uniforms and the best coaches they can possibly afford to give their kids the opportunity to play, or act or participate in FFA or perform in instrumental and vocal choirs. Fifty years ago when I started playing high school sports in my home at least, there was a clear path in terms of being grateful for the gift.

I fear we’ve allowed that path to be blurred by an entitlement attitude and somehow making kids feel like they are the most important element in human society. News flash. Kids are not.

I’m not sure how you pound it into a kid’s head the risk he when he does any number of stupid, thoughtless and often times dangerous things, including the use of drugs and alcohol, messing with sex and incredibly failing classroom work. You actually have to work harder to fail a class than to pass it with today’s teacher initiatives, tutors and other interventions.

I’m never ready to give up on kids because some of the finest men and women I know today were total screw-ups as teenagers. But I’m always ready to give a coach a word of encouragement, knowing they are staking their careers on young men and women who are missing a whole lot of puzzle pieces in constructing their lives.

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