Football teaches players how to deal with life

How can a group of college students who play football concentrate on ball security, tackling and field position when their university has just canceled a semester? I do not know. Ask the Tulane players.

Why would a group of healthy males feel good about hitting the practice field with gusto and hustle when thousands of refugees are in dire need, hungry and thirsty a couple of blocks away? Indeed, how does one throw passes with accuracy when Fats Domino is back at the apartment in poor health? I don't know. Ask the LSU Tigers and their quarterback, JaMarcus Russell.

How does a coaching staff concentrate on doing its job when the very campus it represents has been converted into a medical rescue and evacuation center, or is under water?

I can answer that one.

"Football is just life marked off in 100 yards," the soft-spoken man said.

Coach Bill Badgett was my high school coach in College Park, Ga., and his theme was ingrained with ruthless efficiency. In the toughest training camps I have ever endured, he worked us to within an inch of our lives and stripped us of our macho teen illusions.

"Men, this is the drudgery of football," he spoke as we knelt before him on one knee, slathered in sweat and red dirt in the 100 degree heat. "I know you are exhausted. I know you are hurt. I know some of you think you cannot take another step. What I want you to learn is that life is just like this. It is not always fair. It hurts, it presents you with adversity. I'm going to make sure you learn how to handle all of that. You will get no sympathy from life and you will get none here. Just don't quit -- I promise you will become a man. Football teaches us how to fight back, to survive, and to win."

There was no water, no shaded areas, and no hiding places for the faint of heart. And he was dead-on about the absence of sympathy.

As I worked through Bobby Dodd, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula training camps in later years, I listened to my teammates complain. "This is crazy! This man is killing us! I don't know if I can take it … " the refrain would go in its repetitive moan. I could smile just a bit. In each case, it was a picnic compared to Badgett.

Football coaches and other mentors in this brutal hour are challenged as never before to keep delivering the consistent message my high school coach and thousands like him have taught over the last century. Our sport's contrived tests of manhood can prepare us to face the real thing. They are rites of passage. Football will make a difference, but only to the extent that each team, each element within the team, and each individual on the team internalizes the discipline.

I have seen teams come apart at the seams when tragedy strikes. And I have seen teams bond, put aside differences and transcend their circumstances. Most often on the field we see erratic, unpredictable performances. Think about your response to grief. One minute you are convinced you have completed the process and are ready to move on with life. Five minutes later you are pulled over on the side of a highway sobbing into a towel. We have all been there. Football teams are the same.

Good coaches take seriously the added responsibility. It will be their steady hand that guides the course of young lives, their constant vigilance that notes individual struggles and team schisms. It will be an incredibly complex task. Many times it requires a depth of understanding few possess. There is so very much that is not in the job description, in the playbook, or on the fans' checklist.

At one of my coaching stops there was a particularly difficult period following the accidental death of one player and the murder of another. Privacy laws being what they are, doctors are prevented from confiding personal medical records with coaches, so there is an occasional blindside, regardless of our efforts to understand each person.

One of the student-athletes I regarded as especially mature asked for a private meeting with me. He was one of our better citizens, quiet and very bright. When we had settled into our chairs I asked what I could do to be of service. He looked directly into my eyes and said, "Coach, I have been considering suicide." The avalanche of grief had become too much for him. In spite of his considerable strength and character he had come up against something he could not handle. Because he reached out, we were able to assess his condition, lighten his burdens and treat his depression before yet another tragedy.

Let me assure you this very day that there are more football coaches facing just such challenges than has ever been the case in the past. The good news is that most of them are up to the task. My unscientific research over a lifetime regarding the Badgett Theory indicates that it holds up. Coaches will display selflessness, leadership and a depth of courage now that will make all the difference for untold numbers of young people. They will lead by example and prove their mettle again and again on and beyond the gridiron. You will not have to look far to find their stories.

If you think all this is idealistic nonsense, you have not been in a good football program lately. Admittedly, this is one small aspect of the sport's appeal, but it is real, and it changes lives. In moments of extreme duress like we now face, it can actually bring meaning into young lives if it is properly administered and coached.

Nothing athletic can diminish the tragedy of Katrina, but what football can do is to provide a bit of light on the horizon and an impetus to begin anew.

"Football is just life marked off in 100 yards." Coach Badgett was on the mark.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.