By Greg Price
“This is something that is bigger than yourself.”
Those were words spoken during the pre-game speech by coaching staff of the Taber bantam Rebels football team before it took the field of its Division III championship game against the Lethbridge Bulldogs on Saturday.
Never have words been spoken so true that capsulate the sport of football.
I love various sports, each has their own strengths that can give joy to a child’s life.
But the lessons that can be learned from football are like none other when it comes to relying on one another.
You can have a pitcher mow down 20 batters with strikeouts to propel a baseball team to victory. That is literally having a defence pick daisies for 4/5ths of a game where batters do not even reach first base, let alone score a run.
With basketball moving more and more into an isolation game, you can have a guard drop 40 points and dish out to the perimetre for double-digit assists and make for nearly half a team’s offence with only five players on the court at one time.
In hockey, your team can be outplayed in every facet of the game except for goaltending and you can still win. There are many cases documented of goalies being pelted with 40, 50-plus shots, standing on their head to preserve a 1-0 or 2-1 win. Teams have stolen series in the NHL playoffs simply from having a stone wall in net.
You can see dominating stat lines in football, but I guarantee those stats were not generated solely by the player themselves.
A star running back has the skill of turning a five-yard run into a 10-yard run with second efforts. But constant 100-yard, multi-touchdown games come from an offensive line opening holes that semi trucks could drive through.
Even Peyton Manning would not be able to deliver a touchdown strike with a helmet in his back a second after the ball is hiked from a porous offensive line.
That wide receiver that gracefully hauled in the 60-yard touchdown strike? Most likely from an offensive line that gave their quarterback enough time to eat a sandwich before he delivered the ball to his third read.
That linebacker that made 15 tackles? If those tackles were made 15 yards down the field that is not really a good stat to have because your defensive line is getting dominated at the point of attack.
What if those tackles were made in the backfield? Again, likely because the defensive linemen are occupying one or two blockers themselves to free the linebacker up to blitz.
In no other sport are there so many pieces working together to make a play successful either offensively or defensively. And if even one of those pieces is not doing its job, the best schemed play can turn into an absolute disaster.
And when disaster strikes, apart from the physical aspect of football is the mental part. In a 48-minute game there are plenty of opportunities for the contest to go south on a player that tests their mental resolve. I’ll quote the 2006 film Rocky Balboa which certainly rings true. “It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.”
And that is what I loved so much about the bantam Rebels’ eventual nail-biting 26-25 victory at the University of Lethbridge. Given the final scores between the two teams the last two years, you couldn’t ask for two more evenly-matched teams. There were plenty of times the Bulldogs hit the Rebels hard and the team easily could have stayed on the canvass and called it a day.
Down 19-6 at half, which the Bulldogs dominated, miscommunicated plays, turnovers that stalled impressive drives, an on-side kick recovered by the Bulldogs, and one of our own called off by a penalty, a controversial completed pass that led to the Bulldogs final score, an injury to team captain Evan Harkness, blocked or pressured extra points, the list goes on and on. So many times in the imperfect game where the Rebels were getting hit and could of whimpered ‘no mas’ and headed home in defeat.
But that is where perfection came into the imperfect game that made it so beautiful. Each and every player was picking up one another to fight through the mishaps as each player right down the line believed in each other. No barking at each other, pointing out each other’s faults, but each player building up one another, picking up someone if one had fallen in a bad play. As the score inched closer and closer to one another, even players who saw limited or no time on the field were energizing the bench and the crowd at the University of Lethbridge, turning the atmosphere to almost like a college game with their enthusiasm.
These were traits that could be found on the 2014 version of the Taber bantam Rebels football team throughout every practice and every game of the season.
In seeing how the players believed in each other, it made for a coaching staff that believed in them as well, calling for a two-point conversion near the end of the game to deliver the win instead of opting for the safer option of a possible extra point that would have set up a tie and overtime.
It made for a game worthy of a Hollywood script. No, not the kind of script of unrealistic tackles that no sane coach would ever teach a player to deliver for dramatic effect, or 11 perfectly-delivered bone crushing blocks on a single play, or the perfect spiral on a 50-yard pass.
But simply the perfection of a total team effort in an imperfect game.
It is a game I know I will remember for my remaining days and I hope the players will too as they make their way into adulthood, with lifetime friendships forged from the football field. I’ve heard from some parents of players on the team of how football has helped change their lives for the better in the teamwork and dedication it has taught them.
I caught a glimpse of one player in the change room after the game grip his medal tight, kiss it and close his eyes, leaning back against the wall absolutely physically and mentally exhausted from the game he just battled in. But despite his exhaustion you wouldn’t be able to pry away the smile from his face for the world as each player congratulated one another.
That one moment proved to be why I’ve been helping coach this game in Taber for 11 years now and the beauty of a true team sport. To not only play for a title or a victory on any given day, but to play for one another.
With how smoothly the 2014 season went in both the wins and loses with the camaraderie that was on the team both in games and practices, I can say the Taber bantam Rebels truly played for one another and I was happy to see how team sport should be played, awarded with a championship for the kids.
Be loud and proud kids with your Rebel Yell, you deserve it with the character and dedication every single one of you personified in both games and practices.