It was the Tweet heard ‘round the world — or at least around the Southern Crescent. Particularly at Jonesboro.
It came from Jonesboro Cardinals’ offensive coordinator Nate Wardlaw:
BELIEVE in our program or BE LEAVING our program!
— Coach Nate Wardlaw (@Southside_Nate) September 10, 2016
It came on September 9 in the moments following the Cardinals getting drubbed by McEachern, 69-0. If that game were on the schedule last year, we all would’ve been talking about it, writing about it and doing our best to see it for ourselves.
But with a Jonesboro team that was 0-4 coming into that game, and virtually punchless on offense, there didn’t seem like much to talk about or write about, much less see. It didn’t make a ripple on the Friday night football landscape, except as a testament to how far a team could fall in a twelve month period.
But as I toggled through the scores that night, and then looked ahead at Jonesboro’s schedule, I didn’t feel sorry for them. I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them win. It definitely wasn’t a deal where I enjoyed seeing them lose so badly. I didn’t feel sorry for Jonesboro because I know better.
And I understood the spirit behind Wardlaw’s tweet before he even explained it to me.
“When I said that, I really just meant it, not necessarily directed toward nobody, but when you’re struggling a little bit, you get the naysayers and people who start doubting the program,” he said. “And I just felt like it won’t turn around if people in the program don’t buy in and stay close knit. So when I started hearing people say things, I mean, I just said it like that. Either you believe in us or you need to be leaving us.”
Did anybody take Wardlaw up on his ultimatum?
“One person did,” he said. “They played for us and decided to leave. I just shake my head and us coaches, we just shake our heads and start to think, was that person really for the team, or were they about personal success. And anybody that does leave, we wish them the best and wish them success. We don’t wish bad things, and we hope they succeed. But I’d hate to think that would be the reason to leave the program just because it’s not going well at the moment. But we have to keep going.”
That last statement — those last six words “we have to keep going” — to me was the money quote. And in those words you’ll find the reason why even if Jonesboro goes 0-10 this year, you shouldn’t feel sorry for them.
Why? Because it’s these moments that are bigger than football. It’s moments like these when football — and sports in general — morphs into Life Lessons 101 for a young high school athlete.
According to the most recent statistics from the NCAA, only 6.7 percent of all the high school football players in the country will go on to play at the next level. But close to 100 percent of them will go on to live life after football. And let me tell you something about life — It’s good, but it’s often not fair.
Life will praise you when you’re up and kick when you’re down.
Life will revere you when you’re popular and recoil from you when you’re not.
Life will stroke your ego when you agree with it, and crucify your intellect when you don’t.
And what better place for young, impressionable teenage athletes to learn those lessons than in a place and while playing a game that represents the thing they’re probably most passionate about?
That’s why junior tailback Matavion Brooks had no problem with what his offensive coordinator said on Twitter.
“Believe or be leaving. Yeah, we’re all on the same page with that,” Brooks said. “I feel the same way. We’re brothers. Everyone out here is family. If you don’t believe in us, you ain’t our brother, so the way I see it, you can go. Wins and losses don’t define us as a team or family.”
That’s right, young man. And they don’t define you as a person either. Or as a man. Certainly as sports journalists we chase the hot headlines, the juicy stories and the trends that could be seen as breaking news worth sharing and retweeting on our social media pages. To be sure, there’s a little hubris building effect in a person when all eyes are on them.
Not much in our journalistic training teaches us to hang around 0-5 squads for major stories. But when you see life beyond the ball, you realize what is happening in Jonesboro football right now is a major story. Honestly, it’s really why the coaches coach. Schools pay coaches to win games. But coaches coach kids to win their hearts and make them better men and women for an opportunity-filled, but often cruel and uncaring world.
That’s probably why Jonesboro head coach Tim Floyd has given his young men a directive as to how they should spend their Friday nights after the game or on the bye week — and it’s not watching more film.
“Coach Floyd tells the guys to hang out more with each other on Friday nights,” Wardlaw said. “Put the girls on the back burner and learn how to be brothers to your teammates, especially when you’re going through this tough season.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to hear while spending time at Jonesboro’s football practice Monday was the fact that some of the harshest and most cruel criticism of this team comes from parents and adult fans, according to the players. Maybe the people shouting in the stands forget that the players are still kids, or that they can hear a lot more than you think through those helmets they wear.
I won’t trivialize things by saying, “It’s just a game,” because for so many it’s so much more than just that. But it is a game that adults would do well to remember is not worth risking the respect these young people want to have for you. But such is life.
Three-star recruit Calder Marria understands it, perhaps better than most 17 or 18 year olds.
“People are going to talk about you when you win and people are going to talk about you when you lose,” Marria said. “It’s tough being 0-5 whether you’re a freshman or a senior. It’s something I take to heart personally. But this has taught me about how to be family. We’re all we got. Without each other we’re nothing. So we can’t let what people are saying out here affect us.”
They may not fully understand it now, but these players are learning bigger, more impactful lessons than learning to run a correct route, make the right read or properly execute a blocking assignment.
Knowing proper tackling technique won’t help them when their adult lives require them to have to perform under intense scrutiny, or when they learn that sometimes your biggest supporters today can quickly become your most critical detractors tomorrow.
But working through this adversity will help them. Learning those tough lessons about the fickleness of humanity in a macro setting such has high school sports will help them in the micro settings where raising their own kids and leading their own households through personalized adversity becomes necessary. I’m willing to bet that in those times, the 0-5 season will come to mind before the 11-2 season.
After all, victory is where the glory is. But adversity is where growth and maturity reside.
Maybe we’ll see a turnaround of epic proportions before the 2016 campaign is all said and done. Maybe Jonesboro finds momentum, finds playmakers, wins some games and backs its way into another playoff berth.
But if they don’t, don’t feel sorry for them. They’re still winning — just at a different game.
The game of life.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of the Southern Crescent Buzz. He can be reached for story ideas and tips at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him and us on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 and @crescent_buzz.