The TASC List: They also teach and inspire

You know the picture of the typical coach. Gruff and loud. Headphones thrown on the turf, screaming at the officials. Pushing the team through the wretched heat of August two-a-days. Raging at his fullback for hitting the wrong hole.

And you may think the measure of effectiveness of a head football mentor is found in his win-loss record. Hey, when the “Ls” exceed the “Ws” it’s time to clean house at the top — and find a new staff. That’s the mentality of many a “booster” and many a parent. But they’re often wrong.

The real job of most football coaches at the high school level is to help turn boys into men. To demonstrate the rewards of discipline and training. To take the lead in good sportsmanship. To develop the ability, as best offered by the former heavyweight champion James Corbett, to “Fight one more round.”

And Wilton is fortunate to have in Bruce Cunningham an individual who understands and demonstrates those job realities. His teams are prepared and often undermanned. I counted 28 players dressed for a game against Ridgefield. Their squad seemed like a Roman Legion with over twice as many in uniform. The score told a story all too familiar this season. Losing tough, but battling to the end. Fighting “one more round.”

Coach Cunningham contributes to a stronger community today, and is building a better tomorrow for the team members and those who will follow when they reach the high school. He is a teacher in the finest tradition. In a classroom where there is plenty of real study on the intricacies of offense and defense, the detailed assignments that emerge from game-time strategies, and the need to operate as a cohesive unit at all times.

In a game that is currently under the microscope for the consequences of high impact injuries, his major concern is the health and well-being of his players. More than a few bigger linemen and an emerging skill level at certain positions, he wants most of all to exit from every game at full strength, free of medical visits and rehabilitation schedules. And that’s especially tough when the team believes in “one more round.”

So here’s a vignette from my own experience. How an educator can reach an audience, influence a mind, inspire an idea, and demonstrate a kindness sometimes not measurable, and often unrealized. A summer ago I was with my then four-year-old grandson at the high school field while pre-season football drills were underway. While Coach Cunningham took a breather from running offensive plays, I separated young Joe from climbing on the blocking sled and walked over to introduce him. They shook hands.

I told him that this boy’s father, my son, was number 32 in Coach Tom Fujitani’s wishbone offense on this very field. “So, do you want to play football?” the coach inquired. Looking at me for adult wisdom, the little fellow replied, “I think so.” Whereupon the coach looked down at him and smiled, “Then I’ll save his number for you.”

Days later I returned the lad to his home in the Washington, D.C., area. We traveled by train through parts of the real American scene — Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore. His nose was pressed to the window the entire ride, for sights and sounds far removed from Wilton. Down the concourse at Union Station he hurried, backpack loaded, returning home. Spotting his father at the entrance to the waiting room, he shed the pack, and jumped up into the waiting arms.

“Daddy,” he said, out of breath, but in the moment. “The football coach said he would save your number for me!”

Yes, they also teach, and they do inspire. And so many of us are better for that, and stronger, and more capable of fighting one more round. And as Corbett said: “… the man who always fights one more round is never whipped.”

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Information: