The Ultimate Cost of Football

This piece is something I decided to write in the few hours I had free yesterday. Non-Broncos related for the curious observer.

A couple of days before our game, I talked to my mentor, who worked with me last year before he was let go by our coaching staff. A former DE coach, he imparted some wisdom for me from his lessons learned as a coach. He was despised by most members of our coaching staff for leaving earlier than them on most nights. They saw him as selfish and lazy. One that was a cancer to the team. I saw something different in him and he had helped me greatly in achieving all that I wanted to achieve in the video world. My perspective was different, but I had also spent the most time with him, much more than the other guys in the office. He told me:

Your family will be there for you, but this game will not. If you leave your team, they will find a replacement the next day. You have to focus on you because you are the only one that will do it. Put yourself and your family first. Family always comes first.

We talked for a little bit, I hung up the phone and went back into the office to pack up the remaining things for our road trip. This is what he told me all along to do. His message had not changed since he worked here.

Fast forward to after the game, I was the last one on the bus going back home. As I stepped on, I ran my triple-checks in my head, making sure that I had, for sure, packed all of our camera gear in the bus. My mind was spinning and stressed, needing to calibrate from the game that had just occurred. The players felt the same way that I did, just not for the same reason.

I had just edited the best coach’s film in the entire country, I thought. The shots were nicely angled, we had an incredibly clear picture on what happened, there were no late clips, all the shots included everyone in the frame, etc. It was perfect and edited on time for the coaches to watch, twenty minutes early. A perfect day as a film coordinator, with a great film crew, and great shots from the sideline for our B-Roll.

But, it was the third game of the season and we had just lost 50-0. My good film meant nothing as we were all disappointed. As our head coach put it, “I never thought they would have put half-a-hundred on us and we would have nothing to answer for it.” This was now the 7th out of 9 years in which our head coach was on path to a losing record. Many of the coaches who joined on to a Division I program in hopes of translating their way to a greater team at the next level, were now feeling uneasy and unsure of their coaching prospects for next year. The players were defeated… reeling in from a devastating loss in which they were confident in a win the night before.

Now I knew that it didn’t matter how good my shots looked if the players weren’t doing well. This was a reality I was familiar with, working with the video program for three years now. The coaches were going to find something to criticize, they were going to pick at something. Especially if we lost, which we did a hell of a lot more than we won. Most were going to take it hard internally, but some were going to express it outward. Some were going to find the person to blame when their season wasn’t going great. Finding me, the film coordinator, and criticizing me for my work was going to take the heat off of them. Because if you can criticize the person on the bottom of the chain, your problems may not go away, but the situation is no longer in your lap. And so in some instances, they did. People are flawed and weak in some areas, especially in areas of high stress. Some of our coaches were no different. I felt slighted and angry at the time it happened, not understanding why accountability was considered a high priority in our program but somehow not adhered to by all parties. But now I have had the chance to step back, I realized that sometimes, people act out because they don’t understand their emotions and why they are going through them and lash it out in an attempt to express that they are hurt and not doing well. They were calling for help but weren’t communicating well. A job that requires someone to enforce their rules and standards in a very vocal way, combined with a high stress situation in which major life events were on the line, carried with it extreme verbal reactions. Forgiven but not forgot.

I was reviewing the film with one of my members of the film crew. I had uploaded every coach’s film to their laptop just ten minutes before and we were watching the film grading our performance for how to film the next time around.

“Hey. Shut the fuck up.”

I turned around, and looked at our Director of Football Operations, sitting behind me with a finger pursed to his lips, as to shush me from making any noise. He had whispered it to me, but it felt like a yell in the way it was delivered. I was grading our film directly behind our Athletic Director, who was fuming at the humiliation we just took. My boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. That guy. He was mad and my boss is very sternly trying to tell me to be quiet. It wasn’t my fault that our team had just laid an egg against an opponent we were supposedly going to beat, nor was it my fault that my end zone filmer was next to me and asking me for advice. But the situation is what it was, and so I whispered to my filmer instead of talking silently. Not more than four minutes later, I get a tap on the shoulder.

“What the fuck did I tell you… Shut the fuck up.”

I was irritated and frustrated that somehow, I wasn’t allowed to coach my guy up because our team decided to give up after the first half. But in adherence to the chain of command, I was silent for the ride back.

The spirit of our team was broken that night and would not recover. From the outside looking in, I saw the future of this team unfold and knew there was not going to be another season with our head coach at the helm. It wasn’t all his fault, it rarely is. We had not recruited the requisite talent to compete in our conference, we had not had a very continuous coaching staff, the offensive system had changed significantly with the sudden departure of our previous offensive coordinator to our new one and with it came a whole new staff of coaches. The offense and defensive rooms were divided not only by player but by race, ethnicity, class, and talent. Offense hung out with offense, the OL stayed with the OL, the defense met with the defense and so on. We were not a team but a myriad of groups trying to come together in yet another attempt at a winning season. The coaches coming in were good at their prior jobs but were not effective here for multiple reasons. It was not our head coach’s fault but, it was his responsibility, and he was left to deal with the fallout.

Our offensive line coach, while a great teacher who could break down large concepts very well, and had the buy in from his position group, was teaching blocking terminology that tried to combine the languages of a ‘jet’ and ‘key’ system. On top of this, he was not a great recruiter, the talent he found never really panned out to be anything special. He graded character over talent. While idealistic and suitable for a high school program where the focus is on teaching character while also winning games, his recruiting philosophy hampered the talent we brought in, leading to abysmal numbers. The lowest rushing average per game, the most sacks allowed in the conference, and an environment where our starting QB got hurt by season ending injuries an astounding three years in a row due to missed assignments and bad blocking upfront. I’ll say this again: three years in a row. An argument can be made that his position group cost the program multiple winning seasons with poor protection.

He is a great father, husband, mentor, and teacher. Probably the most honest communicator I have ever met to this day. Just not a great coach at the level he was coaching. And the world told him that as well, in its own way. He dropped from Division I to Division III over the span of one year which led to him being away from his wife and child for a while as he had to pick up the pieces of his career, one by one. A terrible loss and devastating fall both financially and in stability. His family is still together though credit to his wife, him, and the dedication they have to each other and their new, up-start family.

Some of our past coaches were not so lucky. One of our coaches who was a motivating force whenever he came into the building, had just moved from being an analyst over in Hawaii, where his then wife was from, over to a small Division II school to be a defensive coordinator. He was a teacher, a risk-taker, and creator, and a dreamer, all packed into one man. A former defensive back at the Division II level, he came into the room every day, treating everyone well with a great smile and a positive attitude. He was the quintessential great guy that everyone wants to be around. He was wise, a leader, a free spirit, and determined to be the best coach he could be every day. He had worked his way up, working as a student assistant, to a graduate assistant, to a full-time coach over the span of three years. Work ethic and motivation for days. Built a handbook on how to play DB and provided players with all the tools required to become fantastic in their line of work on and off the football field. He had just married his wife who was beautiful and kind in her own right. They were slotted to be together forever and ever. Right?

Not exactly. Despite all of his qualities that made him a great husband and partner, he cared a lot about his career and making it work. He wanted to pursue his career of being a football coach, to the point where his wife couldn’t live that life with him anymore. Mostly in a long-distance relationship because of the change in location every couple of years, putting football above everything, being a force for his players but not paying attention to the details back home. He was by all means a great partner to her but his drive and determination at the office cost him at home in a heart-wrenching way. Family didn’t come first, she initiated the divorce, which then left him surprised. All this work of building a family on the back end had come to a halt. Over a career that doesn’t care if he leaves or stays. Because as soon as a coach leaves the profession, another one enters.

And now he is left to pick up the pieces, one-by-one.

Our WR’s coach in the final year was a technical, engineer brained type guy who came from coaching an engineer school. He was able to connect with his previous group but couldn’t connect with anybody outside of his realm and was a good coach only to some players. Our OLB’s coach was a graduate assistant promoted to coach at the connection of our defensive coordinator. He was a new coach that wasn’t quality nor experienced enough to hold his position group down. Our defensive coordinator was a guy who believed in a flawed recruiting philosophy and led to his demise as a defensive coordinator despite running an effective defensive scheme. All of them fired in the final year to look for other opportunities, all of them finding lesser position at lesser schools, picking up the pieces one-by-one.

Our offensive coordinator the year prior had attempted to install a NFL level type offense at the collegiate level. NFL terminology, formation flexibility, concepts, run schemes, pass protections, route identification, defensive identification, you name it. An intelligent guy in his own right, he had trouble reaching players who didn’t buy into his system. The hours needed to install an offense as massive as the one he had tried to carried with it a large work load on the coaches and players. 100+ hour work weeks for the coaching staff, extra meetings for the players, more demand on installing concepts later in the week leading to more missed assignments. A preference on starting players based on their knowledge of the offense more than players who have more capability to perform better all led to his demise as a coordinator. He also had a knack for bringing players into the program who were not necessarily the best picks for our team but, were connected to his coaching friends who he was trying to build relationships with. He knew the NFL level concepts and systems required to do the job, he was one of the greatest ‘X’ and ‘O’ coaches I have ever been around. But he didn’t know how to reach the players and was a very flawed leader.

I remember working under him for my second season with the team. I was working for free as an intern trying to claw my way up the coaching ranks and earn an opportunity of my own to make an impact. During a meeting near the end of our Spring period, our offensive coordinator had promised all of our staff that we would be able to leave by 6 pm every day due to the change in practice schedule from evenings to mornings and that we could schedule more time with our families. Since we were starting earlier, we could leave earlier. All of our coaching staff, who had families of their own back home, were thrilled. They were finally going to see their sons play sports games, they could spend more time at home helping out, be present fathers and husbands, a dream that they had forgoed to pursue a calling they were called upon. The chance to not only impact the players and help them develop but, also father their own children during the season and spend time with wives more used to the emptiness of the home, raising kids by themselves, then receiving help from the father. Families could finally feel complete, children could finally spend time with their fathers, a beautiful day to behold. We were finally modernizing to achieve the appropriate work-life balance that other programs like Texas Tech or Montana had adopted. Or so we thought.

At the very end of Fall Camp, our offensive coordinator called everyone to a meeting and distributed the new practice schedules. I looked at it for two seconds, thought something was wrong, and then proceeded to squint and re-read what I had just saw.

No… This can’t be right…

I looked again, this time more carefully. I analyzed every line and every space of our schedule for Fall only to discover what had been true all along. We were starting at 5:30 am in the morning, practicing by 7:15, watching film up until lunch, and then building reports, practice scripts, player meetings, and coaches’ meetings all the way up until 12pm on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and up until 10pm on Wednesday. Not only had our schedule gotten longer, but more was demanded from the coaching staff to meet the needs of the offense. The promises sent home from these coaches to their families and kids could no longer be met. A brutal scenario to most, but at a minimal cost to our offensive coordinator, who lived in the office and was a chronic perfectionist, focusing on every detail making sure that everything was right in the most extreme sense. He believed that the effort we put in would make us a top-tier level offense, always ahead of the game in preparing for the opponent. Our offense would be dominant and a force to be reckoned with as we can adapt to anyone. We will outwork everyone in the office and those results would translate to the field.

Our offensive coaching staff shared their concerns about the schedule and voiced their disagreements vocally about the change in schedule. But it was to no avail as our offensive coordinator had told them that this is the work we must get done and this is what I expect you to do. Nothing would persuade him, even though he would try to assuage these concerns throughout the season.

It may have made an impact but it’s likely it didn’t. Our starting QB was hurt for most of the year off of a missed assignment from one of our OL. We finished in the middle of the pack in offensive production, thanks to a breakout year for our backup who ended up seeing some time on the bench as a backup QB for a couple of NFL teams. We finished with a 6-5 record, missing the playoffs by two scores. Our offense didn’t supplement the needs of the defense opting to pass more than normal, not focusing on possessing the ball in close games. And all of those brilliant concepts drawn up were rarely executed to the design of what it should have been. Some concepts worked and others were just blown by one missed assignment from one player which would have made the play work. Spending more time on the white board didn’t improve the product on the field. Because in reality, players win the games. Coaches can help and aid the players but, they don’t have a direct impact most games.

A year later, our starting QB got hurt again and our backup had to come in to lead the team out of a slump. Our team finished with 3 wins and our offensive coordinator was fired as a casualty. Now he was left to pick up the pieces one-by-one, finding a spot with a FBS school as a consultant. He works the same hours but now does a lot less. I wish the best for him and his family. I hope he realizes the big mistake he is making by not spending time with his wife and two children at home. He clearly loves them and they clearly love him. But there is a problem that needs addressing there and its one that needs to get iced over, yesterday if possible. He aspires to be like the great NFL coaches who are above him, which comes at the cost of his family whether he knows it or not.

This is reflected in interviews that I have seen with Sean Payton. Sean Payton, in an interview with Graham Bensinger, mentioned regret for not being present at more family events. Stating that the job can be great in some ways the other way around in others. In his account, he states that it’s not the big things, but the little things that stack up over time. There would be some nights where he could get out by 11pm and that’s great (his words). But some nights kept him and his staff there until 2:30 the next morning to then start again by 7am the next day. He slept at the office the most during his stint with New York as an assistant, trying to work his way up and provide for him and his family as he made his way to be a head coach at the highest level. He has missed important family events in pursuit of his career. A Super Bowl, as beautiful as it is, cannot repair relationships and missed time on the things that matter most. And so, he is left to determine the cost of his career, already head forth into it, making decisions to spend more time winning a football game or building a championship roster than making room for family. This schedule is not uncommon. With the high pressures of winning at the highest level, comes with it demands that may be unreasonable to some. But the highest level is the most competitive and demands a lot out of you. Sometimes at a cost to be determined later.

Our season had ended with a 2-9 record, leading to our head coach being fired. I left shortly thereafter, and a certain disease spread around the world in 2020 cementing my permanent leave from college athletics. All the work I had put in was no longer relatable to the field I wanted to do and so I was left to pick up the pieces one-by-one, hoping to get my life back on track with the determination I had entered the field with, now dispensed into finding a way out.

I was living in my dad’s basement working for his shop to save up income to live out in town at the ripe age of 28 years old. I felt like a failure. Here I was, a grown ass man, working and living with my own dad because I couldn’t put a roof over my head despite having a Bachelors and a Masters to my name. I had tried to achieve a dream and a calling being around an industry that I once loved but had drained me mentally and I had lost the love for. I left for voluntary reasons, opting to leave in January despite being given an option to stay on by our Director of Football Operations. Before I left, I had discussed with my dad about moving in with him to save money for my transition to the military, where the future looked a lot brighter, as long as I put in the work for his shop. He agreed and I was home. But later, I was now reliant on my dad to keep me employed during a pandemic in which everyone was suffering and the future seemed bleak. Which led to me looking for other jobs to try to keep the pressure off of him. He argued that I’m worth more than he is paying me, which was true in some respects but I still felt enormously bad for the worse situation I had now felt I put my father in.

28 year old men should not be living at home with their dad, what is wrong with me? I thought.

He let me know that he didn’t mind I was home and I was welcome anytime. But his reasoning didn’t make me feel any better about the situation. Instead of waiting to join the military on an officer program, I rushed the process and joined immediately, opting to enlist.

And so on a Saturday night, May 9th, 2020, I opened up my phone and dialed my mentor and best friend. He had recently started his venture into real estate, which he would later become incredibly successful at and become a self-sufficient entrepreneur, despite the pandemic. I asked him if I had spent my time on the wrong things, and what he thought of my situation.

Your work cannot determine your identity, that has to come from you. You are going to have to live with yourself your entire life. You aren’t where you work, so you need to figure out who you are and let that determine how you impact your mark on the world. And look, there are some coach’s sons we know that would like to see their dad more so, albeit it’s not ideal, this might be time for you to catch up with yours.

Now I have picked up the pieces, one by one, and have determined myself to a life of efficient work, where the work gets done and I support my teammates, but I don’t work past the clock unless I need to. I provide service above self, and have kept my determination to make my life better than it was the day before, staying true to my compass and direction in life. But I no longer work the long hours and I no longer sacrifice my whole to the profession I am in. It is not only the price that the game of football has cost me, but the lesson I learned to carry forth in my pursuit of being the head of a household of what I hope is a great family.

And if you ask me today, I still think football is the best team sport there is. I haven’t watched it in a minute, and my interest in it has waned. But I still appreciate all of the great things it has offered me. It changed my life for the better in more ways than one. I would still recommend people close to me to play in it as well. Which is why even though I decompressed from it, I still have room to love it again. But perhaps from a distance now where it doesn’t consume my life.

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I am a former film coordinator for a FCS school. Currently serving in the Navy. I was glad to be around the game of football and had the chance to learn from a lot of great people. I wouldn't be where I am without the gracious support of my family, coaches, assistants, players, and friends. I also greatly appreciate you guys who take the time to read my stuff and show genuine appreciation. It means a ton! You guys are awesome! Twitter Handle: @FBDubs