HOW ONE FOOTBALL TEAM OVERCAME HAZING
Late last summer BFS received a desperate call from a head football coach. His football team had just experienced a bad hazing incident
By Greg Shepard
Published: Spring 2002
Some seniors subjected several ninth graders to initiation rites involving sexual harassment. Nothing new. Some of the same things had happened at a university I coached at in the 1960s. Nonetheless, it was a serious issue that had to be dealt with rapidly. Because of the sensitivity of this incident and at the request of the school’s administrators and attorneys, the school, coach and players will remain anonymous.
The coach decided, after much thought, to suspend those involved for the first game. Parents of some of the ninth graders thought the punishment was far too lenient and were threatening a lawsuit. Parents of the seniors felt the punishment was too harsh and they were threatening a lawsuit. What a way to start a season for a team that had finished winless the year before. The coach and the administration were caught in the middle. Talk about a season on the brink. How could you stay focused on football?
On August 18th, I flew to meet with the team and parents. It was going to be a Be An Eleven Seminar. I wanted to use that as a tool to deal with the hazing issue and to unite everyone so that the team could move forward before the first game. The coach and I decided it was best if I proceeded without knowing those involved on either side. I also met briefly with the principal, who frankly thought the situation was really a grave one.
I tried to do my best but was not sure if things were going okay. One thing I do in seminars is to explain how I handle new employees hired to work for Bigger Faster Stronger. What if I said, “Hey you little wimp. Your first job is to scrub all the toilets.” How would that make them feel about BFS and me? How successful do you think BFS would be? What would you think of me as the leader of BFS if I actually did that? Being seniors, captains and leaders of a football team should be no different.
What I actually do is bring each new employee in and tell them how glad I am to have them as part of our BFS family. I try to make them feel welcome. I tell them if they ever need anything or have any kind of a problem that we will be in their corner and they will never be alone. I tell them about our bonus program that rewards excellence as greater profits are made. I smile and shake their hand warmly.
My next step was to practice that approach. I asked a big senior leader and a small ninth grader to come forward. I explained how hard it is for a ninth grader to adjust to a friendly situation, let alone an intimidating one. I asked the senior to look at the ninth grader and say, “Hey, you little wimp. Go get me a towel.” He did, and everyone kind of laughed but they knew how bad this really looked. Next, I said, “Now let’s do it the eleven way. I want you to be like a good big brother. Shake his hand, introduce yourself and say ‘Welcome to high school and our football family. We are really glad you have decided to play. It’s going to be tough but I will be here for you to help you through it.’ Then smile and finish by calling him by name, telling him that he will make it!”
After this role-playing episode was completed, I asked for a vote. The voting was unanimous. There was no question. The eleven way was what they felt they should strive to do from that moment forward. Of course, there were some other things we did. In addition, each player and some parents had read all or part of the Be An Eleven Guidebook. I left with hope but wasn’t sure how it was all going to turn out.
Eleven weeks later I received a letter from the coach:
Our off-season was full of many challenges which nearly tore our team apart. I knew we would need to take strong, decisive steps to rectify things, and the Be An Eleven Seminar fit our needs perfectly. Having the seminar was a catharsis for everyone. Our senior leadership was the best I have ever had in 14 years of coaching. Consequently this is the most fun I have ever had as a coach. The phrases “Be An Eleven” and “Today I Win” are now a regular part of our vocabulary.
This year’s season was a drastic turnaround from last year’s winless campaign. Early in the season we lost three close games in a row to fall to a 1-4 record. Rather than throw in the towel, our kids rallied after those three heartbreaking losses and knocked off an undefeated team. We finished 4-5 and won our last game.
Our team knows that we could have easily been in the playoff hunt. Yet perhaps the greatest tribute to this group of kids is that they didn’t dwell on what could have been or what we should have done, they focused on winning today.
Coach Shepard, your seminar made a profound impact on our players and coaches. It was the best financial investment our football program has ever made. We already have captains for next year’s team. One of them came up with the idea to have stickers for our helmets with the number eleven. The kids all want to do this. Another captain wants to paint the number 11 in the weight room and the locker room. Our team will be committed to touch it as they pass. Thanks for helping us develop our vision for greatness!
The coach sent me their football program book. Some of the players wrote a thank you note. I would like to share one of these from one of last season’s captains:
“Dr. Shepard, you influenced our team to the fullest, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Keep spreading your light.”
In my quiet moments as I reflect on this experience, it is difficult to hold back the tears. I am so very thankful for coaches and kids like the players at this high school. May God bless our great country and help us all to Be An Eleven a little more often.