Today I have the opportunity to speak at TEDxWorthingtonED The theme of this event is resolve and when I heard the theme I immediately knew what I wanted to talk about. I learned resolve from one man. A man who needs no actual name. A man we call CG. I’m forever grateful to CG for teaching me to work harder than I thought was possible and for teaching me to never quit in life. He’s taught those same lessons to thousands of other kids while coaching the game of lacrosse. My talk is is titled “Why Kids Need Co-Curriculars” But it’s really designed to pay homage to my friend and mentor: Chris Gallagher. Here is what I plan to say:
“According to the U.S. News and World Report’s Annual High School Athletics participation report 55% of all high school students, almost 7.6 million kids, participate in at least one high school sport. Is this just another example of our sports crazed culture or are there some real life long benefits to participation in high school sports?
In Worthington, Ohio we desire to see every one of our students connected to a co-curricular activity. Longitudinal studies have shown that children and youth participating in sport, when compared to peers who do not play sport, exhibit: higher grades, greater personal confidence and self-esteem; greater connections with school and even stronger peer relationships.
In addition to these formal studies I believe participation is important because students need to learn to work hard. They need to get knocked down and learn to get back up. They need to build a resolve to never, never, never give in.
The date was Monday, February 19th, 1990. It was only nine days after Columbus, Ohio’s own James Buster Douglas shocked the world by knocking out the previously undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World, Mike Tyson. It was only nine days but it felt like an eternity. On this February day there was an inch or two of white snow that covered the grass in Worthington. It was the first day of the spring lacrosse season for the Worthington Cardinals 1990 squad. The spring season in Ohio often begins with temperatures well below freezing and this day was no different.
I was there that day dressed in my black cotton Worthington lacrosse sweatpants that dragged in the snow. The team that was returning that year was the two-time defending Ohio Lacrosse Champions. There were high expectations for this season and nothing less than winning the Midwest Lacrosse Championship would be tolerated. With that in mind pre-season conditioning would be a brutal exercise.
The team gathered in full lacrosse gear. The old boxy lacrosse helmets, shoulder pads, arm pads, gloves and cleats. Everyone wore the same black sweatpants on their legs but the guys had a myriad of other long sleeve shirts and sweatshirts that each wore on their upper body to try and stay warm. Everything worn was cotton and everything was boxy. There were no moisture wicking fabrics, no Under Armour or Nike Combat Gear back in 1990. Once we were wet, we would stay wet. If you didn’t want hypothermia you better keep moving.
The task for February 19th and for each day that first week of conditioning was to start at the field house building and run down the hill, across the grass we call the flats in Worthington and onto the Olentangy bike path. From there the team would run down the asphalt bike path until reaching Antrim Lake. Each player would then do 50 push-ups before beginning to run around the 1.2 mile lake and 50 push-ups upon finishing the run around the lake. From there the players would repeat their steps back down the trail, across the flats and eventually up the long winding hill to the field house. The total run would take place in the cold wind and on snow covered ground, wearing athletic cleats and full lacrosse gear. It was around a 3.5 mile run.
This morning before this event I ran farther than 3.5 miles and I go for a run most everyday as an adult. But in 1990 I had not run one step since the November end to football season and throughout football season sprints never consisted of more that 50 yards. 3.5 miles was a virtual marathon to me at 17 years old and these conditions were brutal.
To make matters worse there is always someone on every team who actually prepared for what they knew was coming. On this team that was Scott Cebul. Scott had run each day throughout the winter of 1989-1990 and he was ready to set a fast pace for the team. When the run began Scott took off. He was like a rabbit and I struggled to keep up with Keith Poss, Raif Webster and Jon Mackey. Each step was like pure torture. The air was cold on my lunges. I had no pattern to my breathing at all, and running in my black Nike high tops cleats was like running in hiking boots.
When we got to the lake assistant coach Tim Cave was waiting for us. Tim barked orders to hit the ground and begin push-ups. When he didn’t think our push-ups were being done with the proper form (we were wearing lacrosse gloves and holding a stick) he got down on the ground and demonstrated proper form. Eventually we were running again and then eventually we were doing push-ups again. The last half mile of this run would begin near the ice covered Olentangy river. From there it’s uphill all the way to the field house.
I thought I was going to die. Really I wasn’t certain I would even be able to crawl up the hill let alone run up the hill. And, that’s when it began. Sitting on the open tailgate of his black Ford Bronco was head lacrosse coach Chris Gallagher, CG as he is known to everyone in Worthington. CG was wearing shorts, dirty brown work boots and a well-worn hooded sweatshirt. It was under 30 degrees and he looked like he was sitting on the tailgate of his truck in an early fall day. If he didn’t acknowledge it was cold, it wasn’t cold.
As I got close to CG I heard his bellowing voice. From somewhere hidden behind his rough brown beard I heard one word: FINISH. Then the Ford Bronco began to move. The truck stayed in front of me by about 25 yards as I slugged forward. I wanted to quit. And then it happened again, I heard his voice: BOWERS, DON’T YOU DARE QUIT. DON’T YOU DARE WALK! FINISH! F-I-N-I-S-H! I had no choice. I had to finish. I had to, and so I did.
That day was February 19th, 1990. Just nine days after Buster Douglas had knocked out Mike Tyson. The scene repeated itself on February 20th, February 21st, February 22nd and February 23rd. I think on the 24th we were actually allowed to practice lacrosse for the first time. I finished each run that week. Each run hurt. Each run hurt a lot. And each day I heard that same booming voice: FINISH!
On February 19th, 1990 a lesson was cemented into my head that I’ve never forgotten. When I went off to college to play college football I didn’t yet understand the level of work and effort that would be required. In those early August practices of two a days several of my classmates quit the team and left. I couldn’t do that. I wanted to though. But I couldn’t. CG’s voice was stuck in my head. “Bowers, don’t you dare quit!”
Fast forward a few years and I was a first year teacher at Potomac Elementary School in Dahlgren, Virginia. I was teaching 26 fifth graders and I was totally overwhelmed. I was at school each day from 6:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. and the kids were winning this battle. I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be an educator. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to work in a public school. I wasn’t sure I even had what it took to be successful as a teacher. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go into law enforcement, or maybe go back to school, or maybe do anything but this. Some statistics show that 50% of all new teachers quit within their first five years. But, I couldn’t be one of them. What would I tell CG?
Fast Forward a few more years and I’m at Ashland University working on my doctorate in Educational Leadership. All I needed to do was complete my dissertation and I would earn the degree. The dissertation is a research study and it’s judged by a committee of professors. Anyone who has been through the process can tell you how maddening it can be. Turn in a draft of chapter one and receive feedback from three different readers. Often the feedback is contradictory. You make the changes and receive feedback again. One reader liked the changes and gives approval. Unfortunately another reader doesn’t approve and wants you to go back to the wording from the draft before. For two years I repeated this process month after month. I was beginning to lose hope. I finally understood why people end up ABD (all but dissertation.) I could never figure that out before. Why would you ever work that hard and not finish, but two years into the dissertation process I understood. At times this was an effort in futility (on a side note, it is very good training for working with a board of education.) But here I was, I’m 35 years old, I’m working a full-time job as a school principal and I have three little kids at home. I’m really questioning if finishing my dissertation would ever happen. I wanted to quit. I was tired, I was busy, and it just didn’t seem worth it. But, I didn’t quit. I couldn’t. I’d drive from Columbus to Ashland after work and I’d drive home late in the evening. On those drives on I-71 I could hear CG’s voice in my head “Bowers, FINISH! Don’t you dare quit!” I could see CG sitting on the back of that black Ford Bronco. It’s like he was there with me. I had to finish. I had to.
In life there are many, many times when quitting would be easier. Winston Churchill famously said “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never” There’s times where it’s best to cut your loses and move on. But in my life had I quit when I wanted to things would have turned out very differently.
The thing is, I think I probably would have quit somewhere along the line. Obviously I don’t know if that’s true but on February 19th, 1990 I learned a lesson that I have never forgotten. I learned it from a man who pushed me to work harder than I thought was possible but also cared about me as much as anyone I have ever known. As a high school athlete I learned to never quit. And that’s why kids today need co-curricular activities.
We’re soft in America today. You know it’s true. Our kids are spoiled. My own kids are spoiled. They spend their time indoors in climate controlled air, they wear soft moisture wicking fabrics and their education is personalized to their interests and their pace. For this generation perseverance is defined by looking for the fastest video game hacks.
But, throughout every person’s life they will be faced with decision points. Forks in the road where a choice must be made. What will guide that choice? What have we taught our kids about finishing what they started? What have we taught our kids about working harder than they thought was possible and about setting a goal and doing whatever is necessary to make it happen?
Life is never as easy as we think it’s going to be. We must prepare our students for that reality and provide them the skills they need to overcome adversity with persevere. In our current educational system co-curricular participation is the best way to teach those skills. And with that in mind it’s critical that we involve our students in these opportunities and we support them and view them as the key learning opportunity that they are.
Finish. Don’t you dare quit! I learned those lessons in high school athletics and they will carry with me throughout my life. My hope is that this year there are 7.6 million kids learning that same lesson. Thanks Coach!”