Sunday, May 15, 2011
Play Hard. Love Harder
Mooresville football improves on, off field with coach’s new approach
by Denny Seitz
They gather in the end zone after every football game. And whether they’ve won or lost, the ritual plays out pretty much the same.
Then, you hear it again … and again … and again. It comes from points all around a circle that has gotten bigger and bigger each week and includes not just players, but fans, parents, friends.
“Love you, Coach.”
“Love you, Coach.”
“Love you, Coach.”
Capps’ reply is always the same: “I love you guys, too,” he says at the beginning of every postgame address.
Then comes the time for the teachable moments …
The game ball
The players have heard the story about the ball, about how it was given to Capps by Josh Cranfill, then a student at Western Alamance when Capps coached there. Cranfill was born with a disability that required him to use a wheelchair and a special device to speak.
One day, Cranfill showed up at the Western Alamance locker room before a game and told Capps’ players how fortunate they were to be able to play. He told them to cherish their opportunities because not all people get the same chances.
Cranfill became a fixture at Capps’ practices and part of the team, moving his wheelchair on the sidelines with the team during games, continuing to encourage the players and support the coaching staff. Some nights, he’d address the team before a game or at halftime, always with a poignant, passionate message that seemed to strike just the right chord.
Then, one Friday night at a road game, Cranfill was told wheelchairs weren’t allowed on the sidelines.
“The next day, we took care of that problem,” Capps said. “I hired Josh as an assistant coach. They can’t keep my coaches off the sidelines.”
“Coach” Cranfill showed up to practice a few days later and delivered a ball to Capps, a token of appreciation for a man whose influence was obviously evolving beyond just young men wearing football uniforms. On the ball, Cranfill had written inspirational words: Purpose. Heart. Faith. Believe. Respect. Passion. Perseverance. Love.
The football field as a classroom
So it’s Friday, Oct. 15, and Capps holds onto the ball and talks. His team has just finished a grueling five-game stretch that included two-time defending Class 3A state champion West Rowan (8-0), 4A state title contender Mallard Creek (8-0), Vance (5-3), West Charlotte (6-2) and Hopewell (6-2).
The first three ended in demoralizing losses. The last two were inspirational upset victories, including an impressive 19-3 win against Hopewell.
But the talk, at least initially, isn’t about the stars of the game: Charles Wilkes, who led a relentless defensive line; cornerback Wesley Hamilton, who gets more impressive each week and made a one-handed interception, tight-roped his way to keeping his balance and then raced to a 60-yard touchdown return; and backup Dee Tomlin, who waited patiently for his chance to play and then rushed for more than 100 yards.
Those players, and many more, would get the pats on the back and hugs and handshakes that they were due.
But the first order of business had nothing to do with the final score; it was about reinforcing what Capps and his staff have been saying since the first day of practice.
“First off, I love you guys, too, and I’m proud of you,” he said.
Then, Capps asked three players to stand amidst the ever-growing circle.
The players, all key starters, had been suspended for two-and-a-half games but, for the first time since the three-game losing streak began, were all in uniform against Hopewell.
Capps asked them to apologize to their teammates, parents and fans.
Then, he made eye contact with each of the three players and said, “I love you. I’m not ever going to give up on you. Never. Now, quit making stupid decisions.”
As the players sat down, something unusual happened.
A winning tradition
Before Capps’ first day on the job with the Blue Devils, his belief system, routines and rituals already were steadfast.
Rule No. 1: Love and respect your teammates. Rule No. 2: Make sure your actions would make your school and community proud. And Rule No. 3: No individual is more important than the team.
“Coach says long after we’re done playing at Mooresville High and long after he and the coaches are done coaching at Mooresville High, there’s still going to be a school here and a team here,” quarterback Patrick O’Brien said. “He asks us, ‘How are they going to look back at this time in Mooresville history? How will we be remembered?’”
Capps’ rules served him well at Western Alamance, where he averaged nearly 10 wins per season during an 18-year stint and went to four consecutive 3A state title games, winning the championship in 2007.
“Attitude will reflect success,” Capps said, not concerning himself with the fact he’d inherited a team that went 0-11 in 2009. “Not just in wins and losses, but in life. We had to change some attitudes.”
Capps paid special attention to his players’ demeanor, trying to make sure they weren’t hanging their heads after mistakes or blaming teammates when things went wrong. The first three games of the Capps Era were magical – two lopsided wins by a combined 83-0, then an impressive victory against talented Alexander Central.
“Those first three weeks, we learned how to win,” Capps said.
Then came the grueling stretch, where three consecutive losses had Capps wondering if his players would revert to the habits of the 0-11 team or fight through the adversity.
Even though his Western Alamance teams had gone 168-69 in his 18 seasons, adversity was present. There were the first three seasons – his first three as a head coach – that served as a bridge connecting Capps’ obvious coaching knowledge to personal beliefs, such as his faith.
In his first three years, Capps’ teams went 2-8, 2-8 and 2-8.
What was missing?
There was talent, knowledgeable coaches and support from school administrators.
Keys to success
Capps had faith that he could turn things around. He sought advice from top coaches. He prayed. He prayed some more. Then, it dawned on him.
“All along, it was all about my faith,” Capps said. “I wasn’t sharing who I was with the players. I wasn’t being true to myself.”
Capps isn’t about to suggest God favors his teams on Friday nights. But he said he’s a better coach because he isn’t trying to hide his beliefs and who he is.
“As soon as I wasn’t afraid to share my faith with my players, things changed,” Capps said. “Everything changed.”
At the end of Mooresville practices, Capps does what most coaches do and huddles his team for a recap of the day and a glimpse into the next day’s practice or game.
He summarizes his feelings, and then he veers off the coachspeak path and becomes unique: He asks his players if any of them have specific prayer requests and tells them he’s praying for each one of them every day.
Instantly, a half-dozen hands shoot up.
“I always was nervous about sharing my faith,” offensive lineman Josh Holbrooks said. “Until Coach came.”
Dozens of players chime in, agreeing with Holbrooks.
They agree that faith is important but that the most important thing is that Capps is true to his beliefs and allows them all to be true to their own, even if they aren’t the same as his.
At the end of practice each day, and after every game, the scene plays out. On Friday nights, it involves more than just the team, though. It involves members of the community.
Hands are placed on shoulders, heads bow, and Capps stands in the midst of them all, giving thanks, whether his team has won or lost.
Posted by Lisa Ekanger at 7:53 AM