Teaching is a tough calling. And so is football. Both are hard and agonizing and leave you feeling bruised and battered. There are many days — sometimes almost all the days — that you’re left wondering why you willingly press your heart and soul onto such a grindstone, only to be continuously worn down.
Hit after hit. Tackle after tackle. Fumble after fumble. Punt after punt. The lecture goes wrong. The lesson plan fizzles. The handoff is bobbled. The class gets defensive. The kid you thought you’d finally wrangled into catching the ball, drops it at the last second. Some never make it into the end zone.
So many hard drives seem to end without points scored. Is all the work really worth the reward? Is there a reward?
I say yes. Even beneath the gritty pressure, I can spot the moments of brilliance, the shimmer amidst the dust. The glimmer of hope, the sparkle of fire waiting somewhere at the buzzer. For me. For them. For all of us. The grindstone polishes us all. But the going is always rough.
I am a teacher, and I am a football coach’s wife. And I am lucky enough to see my two worlds collide every year when I teach some of the players my husband coaches (and I cheer for) on Friday nights.
It is a privilege, but a painful one. The hardness and heartache of teaching players can be amplified beyond belief. But thankfully, so can the blessings.
Because of the duality of my relationship with these guys, I know so much more about them than what I usually know about my students’ lives.
I know who their parents are, where they come from, and where they hope to go. I know their strengths, and their weaknesses too. I know who struggles with neglect, who is spoiled rotten, who wants a D-1 scholarship, who just wants a family and fishing pond. I know who lost their mother to drugs, who reads on a 4th grade level, who travels from apartment to apartment to outrun bill collectors. I know who loves Hot Cheetos, or Hair Bands, or X-Box Live.
Over the years, I’ve had players with every privilege in the world and players with nearly every misfortune imaginable.
I’ve taught players whose moms were booster club presidents and players whose moms were boozing it up behind the press box. Players whose dads worked the sideline chain gang on Friday nights, and players whose dads worked the prison chain gang on the roadside on Wednesday mornings.
I know these things because these kids become my kids — the way all my students become my kids. But then, they’re also my football family — and football families have incredibly strong bonds. So they tell me things they wouldn’t necessarily tell somebody else.
Sometimes I learn their deepest truths in class discussions, sometimes in private ones, sometimes in journals and essays and notes. Sometimes by the way they dress, or interact, or suddenly withdraw.
I challenge these boys, I hold them to high standards, and demand they meet them. And sometimes they don’t. More times than I can count, they stumble and fall from the burdens they carry.
And when push comes to shove — and it always does (football is a contact sport after all) — I am here for them to vent, to fail, to get back up, to keep pushing forward. Because I know their lives. I know their stories. I know their pain and/or their privilege. And I know their potential.
And heaven help me, when they refuse to meet that potential, to seize the bar and raise it — to bench press it farther than they ever thought possible — it hurts me.
But I have to remind myself that if their fighting spirit — so evident out on the football field — doesn’t manifest itself in my classroom, I shouldn’t take it personally. Some of them are fighting demons far darker than the one found inside the book I’m asking them to read or the essay I’m demanding they write.
It frustrates me when I know they’re just being lazy… but it wrecks me when I know it’s because of their demons.
I know so much more about these players than simply their stats and their numbers listed in the program. And I wouldn’t trade my job or them as students for anything.
They inspire me and bless me and teach me more than they will ever know — more than I can ever teach them — about perseverance through pain, and about finding and keeping humanity inside so much hardship.
They teach me that, though struggles might run deep in your life, courage can too. Football has helped them see that. And teaching football players has helped me see that too.
Yes, the grind of teaching — and particularly teaching students with lives that shatter innocence (theirs and yours) — wears your heart and soul down. You give more (and sometimes lose more), than you ever thought possible.
But the wearing down also polishes your heart and soul. You often gain more than you ever thought possible too. So yes, the rewards are always worth the work. Are always worth the grind.
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