By Mike Podoll • Associate Publisher • This Is AFCA Magazine • Twitter: @fcdaily_podoll
Football coaches are proud of the life lessons that its participants receive as a byproduct of playing the sport. Ours is a game that teaches young players the merits of hard work, the concepts of brotherhood, the benefits of discipline, the pride of self-sacrifice for the good of the team and the honor that comes from trying your best while representing your school and community. These life lessons are the true essence of the game.
Ultimately, they are the real, long-term payoff for student‑athletes who play football. These lessons are timeless and transcend the sport. They are the linchpins for transforming a good football player into a great young man.
Unfortunately, these positive life-lessons sometimes come into conflict with society’s ever-changing norms. And in the worst of scenarios, there are times where misplaced priorities from forces outside of the team can lead to ill-advised, misguided actions — all flying under the banner of good intentions.
A perfect example of this occurred in the 2016 Illinois High School Association (IHSA) playoffs, following a controversial Class 7A semifinal football game between Fenwick High School and Plainfield High School.
With only 4 seconds remaining in a hard-fought contest, Fenwick was leading Plainfield North by a score of 10–7. Fenwick had the ball on its own 15-yard line and one fourth down play remaining. All it had to do was run out the clock to clinch the school’s first state title game appearance. At the instruction of his coach, Fenwick’s quarterback launched a pass downfield where it safely fell out of reach of any player. Time expired, and the incomplete pass should have ended the game. One of the officials, however, threw a penalty flag, calling an intentional grounding penalty. It is at this point where chaos erupted.
The officiating crew mistakenly gave Plainfield North one untimed down. Despite frantic protests from Fenwick’s coaches, Plainfield North kicked the game-tying field goal, sending the game to overtime. Plainfield North won the contest in overtime, 18–17, with a touchdown and 2-point conversion.
After the game, the IHSA admitted that the official’s call was wrong. According to National Federation of High School (NFHS) rules, a loss-of-down penalty, such as intentional grounding, that occurs while time expires shall NOT lead to an untimed down.
IHSA leadership issued an apology for the officiating mistake – yet they were also quick to squash any notion of overturning the game’s outcome, by citing IHSA bylaw 6.033, which states “the decisions of game officials shall be final; protests against the decision of a game official shall not be reviewed by the Board of Directors.”
The next day, bolstered by parental outrage and cries to do what’s fair for its players, Fenwick High School did what many angry, disappointed individuals do in today’s society — they hired lawyers — and filed a 41-page lawsuit against the IHSA to have the game’s outcome overturned.
The Fenwick principal defended the lawsuit in a Chicago Tribune story, saying, “It would be one thing if it was a missed holding call or if it was a judgment call, but this was not a judgment call. This was a rule that was not applied when there was no more time left on the clock. I don’t know how I tell my kids (to accept the outcome) in this situation.”
Predictably, the lawsuit was followed by a nasty, embarrassing and ugly name-calling war on social media with parents, students and fans of both schools publicly deriding the other.
Two days later, Cook County Judge Kathleen Kennedy quickly ruled in favor of Plainfield North, citing the IHSA bylaws.
The legal drama may have ended abruptly, but the boorish behavior from everyone involved was in direct opposition to the life-lessons learned from playing football.
What sort of life lessons did Fenwick football players learn? What example did the school’s leadership show by filing a lawsuit over a referee’s call in a scholastic sporting event?
There is no doubt that Fenwick was robbed of a victory. It’s not really fair to them. And you could also argue that Plainfield North had good fortune in that circumstance.
But you know what? Sometimes in life, things go against you and they aren’t fair. When you’re in the workforce, sometimes you won’t get a promotion that you feel you deserve. Or you won’t land a big sale that you worked really hard for. And sometimes, you may even get blamed for something that isn’t really your fault. (Keep in mind, sometimes the good breaks fall your way, too.)
How you respond in the face of real adversity reveals your character. Football’s very nature prepares you for this. The game’s realities force its participants to quickly suck it up, accept outcomes and move on. You don’t hire attorneys and air grievances on social media.
Fenwick players missed out on an opportunity to learn the real life lesson: Sometimes, life lessons are harsh. The brutal realities of failure and defeat — even when you try your best and play your hardest — are beautiful and necessary lessons that football must teach its participants if the game is to retain its great value.
CLICK HERE to read how Andy Lowry, Head Football Coach at Columbine High School (Colo.) handled a similar circumstance, much differently, and used the misfortune of a bad officiating decision as a way to teach a life lesson to his student athletes.
Mike Podoll is the Associate Publisher of This Is AFCA magazine and AFCA Weekly. His views and statements do not represent those of the AFCA. Email Mike at: email@example.com Follow Mike on Twitter @fcdaily_podoll.