He was always looking for ways to motivate his football team. His purview was a little different than many people in his category. In his world even. He read vociferously and reading can open up different worlds to a person. It expands you. It allows you to travel without leaving home.
“To China, Coach,” one former player once said, “you can even visit China?”
“Yes, China,” he answered.
Reading really helped teaching, and even extended to coaching. It was possible to go all the way back to the origins of the game. The meanings of why things were done. What the originators thought and did. The innovators. The rules and why.
It was reading that brought about the foundation of this story.
He had always been struck by the BIG 33 Game in Pennsylvania. He had read about it in a sports magazine. Originally a game between two top high school squads of 33 players in the Keystone State, it branched out to an All Star game between squads from Texas and Pennsylvania, then Ohio and Pennsylvania.
One time in reading about it, and a pregame conversation between a coach and his squad, he picked up one point that would stay with him forever and a day.
The coach was telling his team how they would have to put their best defensive tackle on the defensive left because most teams were right-handed and ran to the right (defensive left) most of the time.
One of the players raised his hand and said, “But, Coach, their coach’s name is Lefty.” It might not have seemed like much but though he was right handed, he made sure to run a lot of left side plays over the years, especially if scouting showed that what was said above was true: that the opponents put their best player(s) on the defensive left side of the ball.
He also read of a coach who told his team a fishing story the week before a big game.
“You see there were these two fishermen up on a frozen lake in Minnesota,” the coach began. “They dug holes in the ice about 50 feet apart and started to fish. As the day went on, one of the fishermen was not catching a thing, but he noticed that his buddy, only 50 feet away, was catching fish left and right. He put down his gear and went over to see what was what.”
“‘What’s going on over here?’ he asked his buddy. ‘How come we are close together, yet you are catching all kinds of fish, and I am not catching any?’
‘Well, it’s like this,’ said the friend. ‘You have to make the extra effort. You have to keep the worm warm.’ And, as he said this he reached into his mouth and pulled out a big succulent worm. ‘You have to keep the worm warm.’”
So, the Coach decided to make that story the basis of his week’s practice before the next game against the Tolltucket Tigers.
“Make the extra effort!” was the Battle Cry all week. “Keep the worm warm!”
The kids really bought into it and practice that week was sharp, crisp and all the other good adjectives you could conjure up that meant it was a good week of practice.
The coach decided to take the story just a little further though. He went to a store and bought a bag of plastic worms. Later in the week he filled his assistant coaches in on what he planned to do. The coaches responded just as enthusiastically as the kids.
One of the coaches was a World War II veteran who had stormed the beaches at Normandy. He was an enthusiastic coach and the kids loved him. He had this big club he called the “Don’t Blinker,” and at practice he would go around and (fairly gently, lol) tap it on the boys’ face masks saying, “Don’t blink!”
He would feature in the worm tale in a bigger way.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Game day came and the Metro Highland team went through their pregame rituals. It usually took 45 minutes. When they finished, the coach called them over for his pregame pep talk before the opening kickoff. He gathered the team and the coaches around him.
“All right, team. This is it. Don’t forget our work this week. Don’t forget how hard we have worked! AND,” he screamed. “Don’t forget to keep the worm warm !” At which point he reached into his mouth and pulled out the plastic worm he had secreted there as the boys were gathering.
“Make the extra effort! Keep the worm warm!”
All the coaches followed suit. All the coaches had plastic worms in their mouths and were pulling them out screaming, “Keep the worm warm!”
All except one. The World War II vet, psyched over living and life having faced death a long time ago, pulled out real worms! He pulled them out, put them in his mouth and bit down.
Brown drool trickled out of the sides of his mouth and he was screaming:
“KEEP THE WORM WARM! KEEP THE WORM WARM!”
The kids went crazy! They were yelling. They were screaming. They were jumping up and down. Striking helmets. Banging pads.They couldn’t wait to take the field and do battle.
Metro went out there to tangle with the Tigers!
Alas, they lost.
But…. they played a Hell of a Game!
And … long after they had forgotten the score of that game, they would remember in
life to always make the extra effort regardless of the outcome. They would always remember to “Keep the worm warm.”
I’ll bet they even tell the story to their kids and their grandkids. Would be something to see. Hope I’m around to see it.
Photo credit: Michael Linnenbach