Friday, October 14, 2011

More than a game

I wrote these short pieces last spring for Texas School Business magazine. They were part of a 12-story package centered on high school extracurricular activities sponsored by the University Interscholastic League. I worked for the UIL from 1977-2006, so the editors figured I knew about as much about this stuff as anyone.
Thought I'd share them with you.

More than a game
Know what happens when you Google “Why students like school"? You are linked to dozens of websites devoted to “Why students don’t like school,” and the answers are entirely predictable: Teachers are boring. Classes are too long. The subject matter is irrelevant. Adults don’t get it.
Then, a child psychologist with a doctorate from a college you’ve never heard of cautions you — especially if you’re a teacher — to not take it personally because teens, it seems, are hot-wired for everything except sitting in a chair and thinking. It’s all about hormones, apparently. It is damn near impossible to find data on why students like school, aside from an occasional blog or newspaper article that takes a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” attitude, as if the notion of teens liking school is incomprehensible, even silly.
Fact is, teens generally do like school, if only for specific and not always altruistic reasons. The National Federation of State High School Associations — the umbrella organization for outfits like the UIL — at one time years ago asked students why they liked high school, and, again, the answers were predictable: friends, clubs and activities in general, sports in particular. No teens indicated they liked long, boring, irrelevant classes, but a lot of them replied they liked football.
Since then, the National Federation has compiled a million or two terabytes worth of reports and studies that speak to the importance of school activities, but let’s cut to the chase: some teens would not be who they are or where they are without football or basketball or tennis or what not. Let’s meet a couple of them.

Louis Staggers | Belton High School
Louis Staggers smiles all the time.
Not often.
All. The. Time.
“Louis is that kid who walks the hall with the biggest smile on his face,” says John Osborn, head basketball coach at Belton High School. “Everybody knows who he is. At a big high school like this, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. I have some very good basketball players, but if I went around asking students, ‘Do you know this guy or that guy?’ half would say yes and the half would say, ‘No, I don’t know him.’ But everybody knows Louis Staggers.”
Louis smiles even when he has reasons not to. Like when his dad was aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that in April, 2010 sunk 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast, triggering the massive offshore oil spill that rivals the Dust Bowl as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
For almost a week, Louis and his family couldn’t reach him. No one seemed to know where he was, whether he was alive or injured or among the 16 killed when the rig exploded.“My mom kept calling but no one could find him,” Louis said. “For almost a week, we didn’t know what was going on. Basically, I kept hoping he was all right. My coaches and teammates held me together while I was going through that. I had a my family and basketball, and they pulled me through.”
Though uninjured, Louis’ dad was hospitalized in Houston for observation. A month after begin treated and released, he hopped a flight to Egypt, where he's working on a rig now.
“His dad is gone again, and he has three sisters and a 4-year-old niece living with him and his mother,” Osborn said. “He’s such a hard worker. Early on, we had a lot of trouble just getting him to come to practice. He was working at Whataburger and everything else, just to help his family pay the bills.”
Asked how he juggles so many responsibilities, Louis replied, “Basketball. It keeps me focused, keeps me going.”
Next year, he will play power forward for Brookhaven Junior College in Farmer’s Branch. A 6-foot, 4-inch center in high school, he’ll likely convert to power forward. Would he love to shoot up six inches and play 10 years in the NBA? Of course. But the bigger plan is to get as good an education as possible as see where it takes him.
“My assistant and I have always said to him, ‘If you’ll just go ahead and finish college and get all that done, you can be a leader — in business or wherever you want to go,’” Osborn said. “He’s one of those people respect, trust and are willing to follow. He is simply a great young man.”

Hagan Hoppess | Frisco High School
It’s good that Hagan Hoppess runs cross-country because when she learned last September she had cancer, she knew how to deal with it: Take it one step at a time.
“As my coach always said, ‘We can’t start out sprinting. It’s a long run, so let’s stay together, pace ourselves, and we’ll end up winning in the end.’”
So that’s what Hagan did. The cancer — Ewings Sarcoma — was located on her pelvic bone. Surgery was not an option, so the Frisco junior endured 31 rounds of radiation and 14 rounds of intense chemo over 28 weeks.
“Of course, I wanted to get everything done with quickly, but I realized that wasn’t possible,” said Hagan, an honor student who’ll serve as class president next fall. “We couldn’t just get everything over with at one time. We had to stay together, pace it out and take it one step at a time.”
Her track and cross country coach, Sam Reiter, was present when the cancer was diagnosed, and her teammates never left her side during her six months of radiation and chemotherapy. They presented her the first place trophy they earned at an invitational meet and wore their “High Five for Hagan” bracelets all the way to the State Meet in Georgetown. Though her parents first balked at letting her go, fearing she might pick up an infection, Hagan was there to cheer on her teammates at State.
This September, she will be joined by her younger sister, a competitive cheerleader who promised Hagan she would train and run with her during the 2011 cross-country season. They’ll wear their “High Five for Hagan” bracelets and their Team Hagan T-shirts, inscribed with Romans 5:3-5: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
“My coach was there when I was diagnosed, and my teammates have been at my side throughout the entire ordeal,” Hagan said. “I can’t wait to get back with them and start running again.”

Jose Martinez | Rockwall High School
The day the police came to serve a protective order against his father, senior Jose Martinez had to leave the house. He didn’t want to see his father’s face, didn’t want to deal with the guilt of signing the papers that sent his father to jail.
“The whole day, that’s all I could think about,” said Martinez, a starting offensive tackle on the Rockwall High football team. “How could I do that to my own father.”
Well, here’s how: Jose’s mother died of cervical cancer before Christmas, 2010, leaving him in charge of his two younger brothers and two younger sisters. Shortly afterwards, his absentee father showed up, which might have been a blessing were it not for the fact that he had been in trouble with the law off and on and had anger management problems, which is a polite way of saying he beat on his wife and kids when it pleased him.
Jose was having none of that again. He petitioned every local and state agency he could find to have his dad removed from the home — in addition to assuming virtually all of his mother’s duties.
“Jose took on the transportation for all, shopping, cooking, cleaning, homework and all the while maintaining good grades and attending his own football practices and games,” said Nancy Goeller, Rockwall High athletics secretary and a family friend. “Many an evening, I'd be back on campus for meetings and such only to find Jose sitting in the hallway doing his studies while waiting for his brother to get out of wrestling practice.”
Today, Jose and his siblings live with their grandparents.
“I look back now and I’m surprised how well I managed it back then,” he said. “I wonder how it is I didn’t have a nervous breakdown. My mother and my brothers and sisters kept me going. I worked hard to make them proud in every aspect of my life.”
No doubt, they are.
“Jose’s mom must be looking down on her oldest child in awe and pride at the amazing courage and strength he's shown with everything that's happened in the past year,” Goeller said. “He's exceeded every mothers' hopes and dreams for their child.”
And finally, he had his football coaches and his teammates.
“They didn’t understand the situation with my mom at first,” he said. “They knew she was sick, but they didn’t know she had cancer, and they didn’t understand the situation with my father, but they were great friends who stayed by my side through the entire thing. I would die for them — that’s how much I appreciate their being there for me.”