It was a crisp, spectacular autumn Saturday, one of those mornings the Supreme Being placed on our calendar so footballs can be passed and kicked and spiked in triumphant end-zone celebration.
We were in Marshfield. The players were 12 years old. And with each minute that drained from the scoreboard, my blood pressure rose.
Like every contest in which the combatants have yet to acquire their first shaving kit, it was a meaningless game. Still, the coaches decided the stakes were too high to play all but the most gifted of their precious pre-teen athletes.
I don’t recall who won. No one there that morning does. But after the game broke up, my young son and I headed for the parking lot and encountered a scene — a full 10 Octobers ago now — that remains seared into my memory.
A coach takes one of his small players aside — and the little boy is crying.
“What’s that all about?” I asked my son. “Paul didn’t play,’’ he told me. After a pause, he added: “And I didn’t either, dad.’’ And then my son, too, burst into tears. There have been few times in my life that I have seen brighter shades of red.
Like most parents, I have been the beneficiary of the fine talent and the donated time of dedicated, hard-working coaches. They inspire. They nurture. They are treasures. And, thankfully, they outnumber the knuckleheads.
But there is a healthy minority who worship only the final score. Some of them, as the great Tommy Lasorda would say, couldn’t hit the water if they fell out of a [expletive] boat. They are members of the win-at-all-cost club.
If your kid is the star quarterback, or the captain of the field hockey team, you probably love them. But if you’re like most, parents of kids with average ability, you want to throttle them.
An estimated 20 million children register for competitive sports each year in America. With these frustrated wannabes patrolling our sidelines, it’s little wonder that, according to the National Alliance for Sports, 70 percent of them quit playing by age 13.
“There are a percentage of coaches who shouldn’t be coaching and there are some who are like a gift from God,’’ Jim Thompson told me. “Our goal is to move everyone in sports in the direction of God’s gift.’’
Thompson is the founder and chief executive of Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit that is working to make character building, not winning, the cornerstone of youth and high school athletics. It’s a borderline disgrace that we even need such a group, but we do.
The group focuses its spotlight not on the my-way-or-the-highway coach, but on women and men like Chris Lindstrom, the head coach at Shepherd Hill School in Dudley. When he collected an honor at a breakfast meeting at Fenway Park earlier this year, Lindstrom told the story about a recent Thanksgiving Day game, the last for his seniors. When Lindstrom realized one of his seniors hadn’t left the bench yet, he took out his talented son, and sent the back-up senior in for his moment of glory.
“Who cares who wins the game?’’ Lindstrom said. The answer, sadly, is too many coaches.
Lindstrom reminds me of one of my oldest childhood friends. Paul Constantino is the head football coach of Clinton High School. He has taken his teams to Super Bowl championships. He’s also gone winless. He teaches respect. He carries himself with dignity. He loves to win. He doesn’t throw tantrums when he loses.
And his proudest accomplishment is not his win-loss record, but the esteem in which he is carried by boys who grow into men and remember the imprint he made on their character.
He is, as Thompson would say, a gift from God, the kind of coach any parent would love to see on their sideline, the kind of coach simply incapable of making little boys cry.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.