Athletes make football stand above

During the past two weeks, I interviewed more than 20 local high school football players. It wasn’t just an attempt to fill space in our daily pages and in our award-winning football preview magazine.

This was a pursuit to dig into the minds of young athletes and see what makes them tick. I enjoy hearing the hopes and dreams of these players and I have the grand opportunity to follow them throughout the season and their prep careers.

Sometimes their goals are reached. Most of the time they are not. The measure of a true champion is how he bounces back from the shortcomings. What he learns from it is more important than what he achieved because of it.

I talk to kids now, because I never had the opportunity to be interviewed when I was a high school athlete. As a high school cross country runner, I treated each 5K competition as my Friday Night Lights. Usually, it was myself against the course in a barren corn field without any spectators. I didn’t have a coach chewing me out after a missed assignment, or a parent yelling at my coach for not giving me enough playing time.

Cross country isn’t football, as much as I wanted to believe it was.

In August, late-summer cross country practices would coincide with the football team’s practices at my high school. As we tried basic calisthenics in the parking lot, there were gladiators of the gridiron pounding each other a stone’s throw away on the football field. We ran steep hills, trained on rough terrain and jogged 10 miles on any given practice.

We thought we were going harder than the football players.

I now know that we were not. Not even close.

As I talked to various area football players this month, I got a peek inside the lines of what goes on when the stadium is empty. I got a peek inside of what goes on at the break of dawn when players peers’ are fast asleep.

It’s a lot harder than a cross country practice. And all I had to do was hear about it.

Of each player I talked to, I heard about the optimism each has as they enter a new season. For many, it’s their last season playing football. They’ll still get at least 10 chances to run out of a tunnel, under the lights, through a banner and into the warm embrace of the cheers from their adoring fans.

We didn’t have that in cross country.

“If you’ve never played football,” said Brooke’s Thomas Cole, cover boy of The Gridiron, “you just wouldn’t understand. You don’t even really understand the pride and passion playing in the pee-wee leagues. There’s nothing like high school football and I can’t wait to get another season started.”

Cole is one of the rare ones who will be playing football in college. He has shining facilities, sharp uniforms and a sure-fire scholarship to look forward to. But Cole, and the rest of the Ohio Valley gridders, have a prep season that lies ahead. They know what it means to their parents, grandparents, friends, boosters, classmates, school board, coaches and alumni. Most importantly, players know what this game means to themselves.

There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me.’ Individual work at a high level will translate to overall team success. Whether lofty preseason expectations will fully bloom remains to be seen. If a team goes 0-10 and every individual player performed to the best of their abilities, the season was a success.

In cross country, I was all on my own, pushing myself to the limit.

Maybe we weren’t so different than the football players, after all.

(Peaslee, a Weirton resident, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)