The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

September 28, 2013

Character much more important than game

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Matt Labrum should be named high school football coach of the year.

Labrum, coach of the Union High School football team in Roosevelt, Utah, hasn’t won a tremendous amount of games or sent dozens of players on to careers with powerful major college teams.

Prior to last Friday night, Union’s Cougars were 3-2, their most recent game a 40-16 loss to Judge Memorial. Last season, Labrum’s first at the school, the team finished 5-6.

That is not exactly setting the world on fire, at least in terms of wins and losses. That’s the kind of record that will draw heat from parents, alumni and fans.

But Labrum nonetheless should be declared coach of the year, not only for his state, but for the nation as a whole.

That’s because Labrum, who is coaching at his alma mater, decided there was more to coaching than winning football games.

Earlier this week, Labrum suspended his entire squad, all 41 of them. He made them turn in their jerseys and equipment the week of the school’s annual homecoming game.

And the suspensions had nothing to do with their actions on the field.

Labrum was upset about reports he had received about his players’ off-the-field behavior.

Some players were involved with the cyberbullying of other students, while some were cutting class or smarting off to teachers.

Grades were slipping, as were attitudes.

So Labrum decided he needed to send a message, not only to his team, but to the community, as well — how you act off the field is much more important than how you perform on it.

At a 7 a.m. team meeting the next day, all of the suspended Union players were handed a letter under the header, “Union Football Character.” The tome outlined just what they needed to do to regain the privilege of playing high school football.

“Humbleness, thankfulness, humility, respect, courage and honor are much more important than winning ballgames,” read the letter, in part.

To earn their way back onto the team, the young men had to perform community service, attend study hall and take a class on character development. They were also required to memorize a poem about the importance of character, help their own families around the house and to write a report detailing their actions.

Oh, and they had to show up on time, attend all of their classes and improve their grades. And there was to be no more bullying and no more guff for teachers.

So the players visited the elderly and disabled, pulled weeds, went to class and kept their noses clean, or at least most of them did. By mid-week, 32 had earned the right to wear the school’s black and gold jerseys, just in time for last Friday’s homecoming game.

This had nothing to do with football, nothing to do with high school, but everything to do with life.

“We felt like everything was going in a direction that we didn’t want our young men going,” Labrum told the Deseret News. “We felt like we needed to take a stand.”

In many small communities, suspending an entire football team would set off a firestorm of protest. But in Roosevelt, a town of about 6,000 located about 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Labrum received nothing but support.

Not a single parent complained to the school’s administration about the coach’s actions.

Union might not win another game this year, or it might win them all. It doesn’t matter either way. No matter the record, this will go down as the most successful football season in the school’s history.

Don’t think so? Here’s what Gavin Nielsen, a senior running back, told the Deseret News.

“I still have the love for it and everything,” Nielsen said about football as he leaned on a shovel he was using to remove weeds as part of his community service project. “But it helped me realize, it’s not all about football.”

It’s not. It’s about respecting yourself and others. It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about giving everything your best effort, win or lose.

It’s about being kind and considerate. It’s about making your school, your family and your town proud to have you represent them.

These players learned that just because they have some athletic skills, that doesn’t entitle them to wear their team’s uniform, much less to do whatever the heck they please whenever they please.

“It is a privilege to play this wonderful game,” read Labrum’s letter to his players.

And, as Labrum demonstrated so clearly, the role of a football coach is not so much about turning boys into football players, but turning them into men.



Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.