Finally, someone has put sports in its proper place.
In the midst of prima donna athletes, win-at-all-cost coaches and out-of-control fans, we can take comfort in knowing there's at least one guy out there who recognizes there are far more important things than what happens on the field.
We salute you, Matt Labrum.
For those who haven't heard, Labrum coaches high school football in Roosevelt, Utah, a hamlet about 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, population 6,100.
While most coaches fret over missed tackles and dropped passes, Labrum grew more and more concerned about the way his players were acting away from the gridiron. Skipping classes. Not doing their homework. Bullying classmates over the Internet. Disrespecting teachers.
So, after last Friday's game at Union High School, he called together the varsity and junior varsity players for a meeting.
The message he delivered had nothing to do with a 40-16 loss, though the parents lingering outside didn't know that.
"We waited for them to come out of the locker room—and waited and waited and waited," said Tammy Kelly, whose has one child on the junior varsity and two more on the freshmen team. "It must have been an hour and half before they came out. We were all like, 'I hope they're not getting their butts chewed out by the coach for the loss.' We knew that's not his style."
This was something much more serious.
Turn in your jerseys, he told the varsity and junior varsity players.
You're done playing football at Union High unless you start acting right.
According to the Deseret News, each player received a letter that outlined the problems and told what they would have to do earn back their spot on the team.
Most important was this passage:
"The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field," the letter said. "We want student-athletes that are humble to learn and grow through adversity and success on and off the field. We want a team that others want to associate themselves with and support; winning isn't the most important criteria for that to happen."
How refreshing is that.
Instead of practicing Monday and Tuesday, the players pulled weeds, washed windows, and visited two nursing homes in their town, including a 16-bed facility that is owned by Kelly, where three players called a game of bingo, another played checkers with a resident. They also had to do a project for their families, complete with a typed report, pictures and their parents' signatures. In addition, there was a class on character, which came with homework.
On Wednesday, practice was replaced by a two-hour study hall, the players needing to show significant improvement in any class they were struggling in. Finally, the team was required to memorize a quote and recite it to the coaches.
"Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it, piece by piece—by thought, by choice, courage, and determination."
Kelly said the visit from the team did wonders for the elderly in her facility.
"They have a lot of stories to share," she said. "The boys were very compassionate. I think it really touched them as well as the seniors."
Her son, Cache Connary, had more work to do at home.
"He planned a meal, he cooked it and he cleaned up," Kelly said in a telephone interview. "His list is not quite complete, though. I added more and more to his list. This weekend, he's going to finish up hanging a lot of things that need to be hung around the house. He's also going to fix every broken towel rack around the house."
Apparently, Cache wasn't the only one who responded well to a little tough love.
Instead of rebelling like petulant teenagers, nearly all the players did what they had to do. After study hall, the coaches returned black and gold jerseys to 32 of the 41 youngsters, Cache among them, allowing them to take part in the JV game Thursday night or Friday night's homecoming contest against Emery. The other nine can still rejoin the team for future games if they complete everything on the list.
"It was an emotional time for the boys," Kelly said. "The minute Cache got his jersey back, he sent pictures to me on his phone. He also sent one to his sister. He was just beaming. It was a big deal."
There was time for only one practice before the games.
Union High is already a big winner.
"It was humbling for these kids," Kelly said. "It was all about what they can do to be a better person, what they can do to contribute to the family, contribute to the community. It made them dig a little bit deeper. These boys were so caught up in themselves, in what was going on with them at school, on Facebook, but all that takes away from their core values. This brought them back down, showed them that a lot of that other stuff doesn't matter."
Labrum has grown tired of all the attention, of being made out like he's some kind of hero just for doing what's right. He told the News he doesn't want "us to lose sight of why we we're doing this."
He's right. Hero is a little over the top.
Coach of the year is not.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963