Covering high school football for a living every autumn sometimes leaves me feeling so… used.
Hear me out. It’s the greatest job in the world. Free access to the sideline and all the action and camaraderie. The best seat in the house for some of the most intense sights and sounds in youth sports.
I get to be your eyes and ears for two hours, for the day after and for as many years as those scrapbook clippings are legible. Can’t beat it.
Then comes the post-game process, which also has its moments. We develop great working relationships, even friendships, with the coaches who lead Maine’s high school football teams into battle. We become an extended part of a fraternity that doesn’t seem to exist in many of the other games kids play.
Sometimes that puts us in awkward situations. Or in the line of fire. Or sets us up, unwittingly, to deliver a coach’s message even if we don’t agree with it.
Two early-season encounters drew statewide notice through social media and reinforced that fine line we walk.
There was the case of a highly successful coach from a model program that was on the business end of a rare, opening-night blowout.
Undermanned due to injuries and those ever-popular “violations of the school’s athletic code,” his team was nowhere near midseason form, and a far cry from the favorite to win the conference title — as it was anointed in our sports section less than a week earlier.
When approached after the game, the coach no-commented the circle of reporters in attendance before, well, commenting. He chided his audience for putting pressure on a young, incomplete team, and for what he perceived as lazy reporting by ranking his club No. 1 based solely on last year’s records and this year’s returning players.
With all due respect to the coach, whom I consider one of the best in the business anywhere, that’s what we do and what anyone in our position does. Football is a game of numbers and tradition and toughness. And high school football is a game traditionally won by seniors.
All those categories favored this school over its league rivals, cleats-down. To not choose them No. 1 or at least No. 2 in the conference based on prior accomplishments would have been an insult to everything that coach and his community have worked so hard to achieve in a quarter-century.
But I know the drill. Sometimes a coach is disappointed with a player or with a fate that was sealed before the team even took the field. If you’re the first person waiting in line as he’s starting to cool down, you’re the one absorbing the backlash.
I also get that coaches are their players’ teachers, friends, substitute dads and amateur psychologists.
Never underestimate the last link in that chain. Much as coaches dismiss it or occasionally disparage the media’s invisible presence in their camp, they recognize it, and yes, even take advantage of it.
They’re aware that players scan newspapers for a glimpse of their picture or name, and that they digest their coach’s post-game comments, pithy or profound. Quite often those words are a calculated attempt to get under the players’ skin. Some teams need that more than others.
Other coaches might win big but still worry about the team losing its edge or forgetting where it came from.
I encountered one of those last Friday night after a visiting team’s one-sided victory. The boss could find few reasons to quibble with his squad’s complete domination on offense, defense and special teams.
He was asked about an inordinate number of penalty flags — 18, to be precise — against a winning team. Rather than seize the statistic as an area for improvement, he painted the problem as one that his geographically isolated club frequently battles with the officials that work the games in its league.
Fans of the defeated team groaned, interpreting the words as whining. Referees bristled at a writer’s decision to extend the coach that forum, given that they didn’t have an immediate chance for rebuttal.
Again, I think we’re all missing his point. It’s part of a coach’s elaborate plan to use every psychological weapon at his disposal.
Not even a decade ago, this coach and his program were neck-deep in a six-year losing streak. Playing the us-against-the-world card was a crucial element in bringing it back from the brink of extinction.
Ah, but what to do when the rebuilding is complete and you’re surfacing as everyone’s trendy pick to win it all? Keep those boys believing they’re still the underdog, of course. Convince them that the world will make them put in four hours of work for two hours of pay.
Whatever works. It’s all part of what makes high school football such a colorful, exciting endeavor.
Coaches and their teams are apt to use everything in the playbook, even when it involves a middle-aged, clipboard-wielding 12th man.
Kalle Oakes is a Sun Journal columnist and sound bite machine in his own right. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.