Thursday, November 26, 2009

Game-Time Decision: A Thanksgiving Day True Story

It was the smartest play I ever saw a football coach call, and I was the only one who saw him do it.

The first rule of covering a Massachusetts high school Thanksgiving Day game is get there very early if you want the shelter of the press box and, even more important, a decent parking space. This is especially the case when it's a certified Big Game between traditional powerhouses battling for a Super Bowl berth in a game that's been talked about since September (no names will be used in this tale, but if anyone can correctly determine the schools and date, let me know, as I admire knowledge).

I was in the press box at 8 a.m. for the 10:15 kickoff. At the far side of the box, a group of adults were talking in the low, urgent tones that mean a genuine crisis is underway. One of them was the home team coach.

As a professional snoop, I went to Defcon-4, willing myself invisible a la Wade Boggs while subtly, I hoped, moving a seat or two towards the conversation. What was the problem. Quarterback's big brother come back from college and take him out drinking last night? Offensive line flunk a geometry test en masse?

Oh, no, it was much worse than those potential issues. The coach had a choice on his plate that makes 4th and 2 from your own 28 against the Colts seem less difficult than the Jumble puzzle in the paper. The National Anthem had been overbooked. There were two singers for one song -- and both were players' moms. Important players' moms.

Months ago, it seems, some school administrator had contracted the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner before the Thanksgiving Day game to Mom A, who had had some sort of low-level entertainment career in a past life. In the meantime, Mom B had done the honors before all the team's other home games, all of which they'd won in a so-far undefeated season, and, of course, assumed SHE would sing before the year's biggest game. As it became clear during my eavesdropping, so did the team -- but not the administrator.

This is just the sort of inconsequential nonissue that can tie the average Massachusetts suburban community into a bitter knot of bad feeling for, oh, a decade or so. Neither Mom was in on the discussion, but their advocates made it plain they both wanted to sing VERY badly.

Consider the parameters of the coach's call. He was faced with either making a liar out of his immediate superior at the school, or altering a cherished pregame ritual of his team of hyperemotional adolescent males 15 seconds before their (and his) most important game ever. And whichever Mom he picked, the other might tell her important player son that the coach was a jerk at an inopportune moment -- like an hour before kickoff.

It is rare one sees true genius at work. The coach did Solomon one better. He didn't split the baby in half, he made it twins. Within minutes, he proposed the following compromise. Mom B would perform the National Anthem as she had all season. But before that, Mom A would take the microphone and lead the crowd in God Bless America. A double helping of patriotism never hurt any pregame ceremony.

The coach's play call was an elegant solution to his complex problem. But that paled next to his execution of the call. It took this leader of men AND women less than five minutes to sell the plan to both Moms -- and they were all smiles when he finished. Confronted with a "distraction" before the supreme professional moment of his life, our hero with a headset became Knute Rockne and Henry Kissinger rolled into one.

It gives me pleasure still to report that the coach's team won the ensuing game with a "miracle" touchdown on the final play. If virtue isn't going to be rewarded on Thanksgiving, when will it be? My enduring professional regret was that the conventions of daily journalism and the useful rule that you shouldn't embarrass anyone when covering high school sports meant I had to write about the game, not the drama which preceded it.

But now, to not coin a phrase, you know the rest of the story. And I wish the happiest of Thanksgivings to players, coaches and moms from all high schools everywhere. My life, and all life, would be so much duller without you.


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