Jeff Pearlman

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Lessons of 36-6

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So those who read this blog with any regularity know that last week I made my flag football head coaching debut (well, I filled in for Chris—the regular head who was away on business), and our team enjoyed a spectacular morning (and a win).

Today was, eh, different.

Very different.

So Emmett is in his third year of the local NFL Flag league. He enjoys it. As do I. The games are fast and action-packed. The sport itself is aggressive without being violent. When teams are evenly matched, it can be downright exciting—a merging of athleticism with strategy. Our team, the 49ers, is comprised of nine kids. A few are spectacular jocks. A few are non-jocks. The majority fall somewhere in the middle. As does Emmett. He’s a quarterback with a so-so arm. He’s a receiver with good hands but average speed. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a game.

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t feel like a game. This morning, for example, we played the Redskins. I knew it’d be trouble when their coach arrived in a Redskins hat, Redskins T-shirt and Redskins jacket. I knew it’d be trouble when I saw the kids warm up—and they were sleek, crisp, precise, strong-armed. I (really) knew it’d be trouble when I saw all the kids wearing bands on their arms with the plays. Someone had mentioned to me that the Redskins retained many of their players from the previous season. I didn’t believe it. I mean, how could that be fair or righteous in a flag football rec league. Right? Right!?

Wrong. The Redskins are a team of superstars. Not only have they been together for years, they actually play in two simultaneous flag leagues. And we got, well, massacred. The final score was 36-6. It could have been 60-6. We had no answers on defense and my offensive play calling, ahem, didn’t work. Last week, against our relative equals (the Eagles) tricks tricked, sweeps swept, passes soared. Here—nothing. We could have played 100 times, and they would have won 100 times. They scored and scored and scored again. They weren’t mean—but they were ruthlessly efficient and organized. Hell, that’s what happens when you compete in multiple leagues with returnees. It was, college basketball-wise, Kentucky v. Mahopac High School.

As the game went on, and our players started to wilt, I became increasingly frustrated. It wasn’t losing. It was the utter unfairness of it all. What’s the point of having a league where the decks are stacked—heavily—in favor of certain teams? I could see our guys turn increasingly frustrated. And, again, it wasn’t the defeat. It was the slanted table. We could do nothing against them, just as I couldn’t do anything in a fight with Floyd Mayweather.

When the game ended, I actually approached the Redskins coach. I said, “Look, I wanna ask you a question. And I mean no offense, but how is this fair?”

He was shockingly gracious and decent. He told me his sons love flag football, so he devotes himself to coaching them. Yes, he gets five returnees year after year—but (hey) it’s what the leagues allow. He said he never tries to run scores up; even offered to talk play calling with me and offer suggestions. It wasn’t what I expected. He was kind, but also devoted to making the Redskins ridiculously good.

I suppose my problem is with the league (which is otherwise terrific). I can’t understand why you’d have teams retain players year after year. It’s a competitive balance killer, and dispiriting as hell.

Just babbling. It wasn’t fun.

PS: During the game our best player left. Just left. He was frustrated and walked off, and his parents allowed him to do so. Not a word uttered.

  • Dan Lipps

    I completely understand Jeff. As a coach the thing that drives me nuts is teams that play in leagues or tournaments that they have no business being in. Not only is it no fun for the kids, it is very difficult to teach anything except good sportsmanship. In baseball we played in a tournament where every game we played was decided by a couple of runs. We made it to the finals only to play an undefeated team who 10 run ruled every opponent. We were 10 run ruled also. I heard him say that this was a good warm-up tournament for a National tournament coming up. Found out they were a traveling elite team. How did this help his team? Who benefited from this?

  • Rob Guyette

    This happens everywhere. It sucks, but there are adults like this in every youth league I have ever coached in. Glad my daughter took up golf.

  • Chris

    Does this league have tiered divisions? The wristband thing is pretty standard though. Although my son’s team is in the lowest division in their league, they are 6-0. This is despite the fact that the team is made up of three basketball players, two baseball players, one male soccer player and two female soccer players. They’ve never played together before, only practice for an hour before each game and call their own plays. Sometimes these kids just mesh together.

  • TLM

    Take it like a man.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life