Jitters and a Prayer
To an athlete or a coach, there is absolutely nothing like the pre-game jitters. It's hard to pin down when they actually begin. Some coaches say that it's the night before the night before the game that's the worst time. The fluttering in the stomach known as butterflies becomes a common occurrence.
It was a warm September night in 1966, and I was feeling the heat. It was just about kick-off time for the Calaveras Redskins and a new season was about to begin. I was 26-years-old and I had returned to my alma mater as the head football coach. Although I had five years of coaching experience in Minnesota under my belt, I was still the rookie in town to my players, their parents, and to the community. It was also a tumultuous time. Anti-war demonstrations were breaking out on college campuses as the war in Viet Nam escalated, Civil Rights riots were wreaking havoc in some of our cities, Ronald Reagan was about to be elected governor of California, I had a young wife and one year old son at home, and I was in the process of moving to a different house in San Andreas—there was just a lot of stuff going on. But none of that was on my mind on this particular evening. I was tuned in to the action on the field. Oh how I wanted to win the opener and start the new season with great momentum. Calaveras had been through a few lean years and everyone was chomping at the bit for some upward change.
It was a perfect night for a football game. The stands were full, stars were brilliant in the heavens, and a big moon had illuminated the outline of Bear Mountain in the distance. Our opponent for the opener was Hilmar High School, a perennial power from the valley made up of tough farm guys. They had terrific community support and a large contingent of their fans packed the bleachers on the visitor's side.
Both teams went through spirited warm-ups, and then stood silently as the Calaveras Redskin Marching Band played a rousing rendition of The National Anthem. Our team then huddled in a circle as we went over final instructions. Beads of perspiration were already evident on many foreheads, and deep breaths could be heard within the circle. Just before we were to break and run out to line up for the kick-off, I announced to the team that I would like to lead them in a team prayer. These were pre-ACLU days and the team prayer would become a tradition for us as long as it would hold meaning and significance and not become a frivolous habit as many things can become. With all the butterflies in my stomach, I am sure my voice trembled a bit as the words came—"Our Father in Heaven, We thank you for the privilege we have to be able to play this game tonight. We thank you for the physical strength we have, and the abilities that you have allowed us to have. We pray that each of us will do our very best tonight, and that we will represent our parents and school in a worthy way. We pray that we will meet our opponents with courage and class, and protect both sides from injury. Amen"
With a roar, our team bolted from the pre-game huddle and lined up for the kick-off. Soon the ball was in the air and the new season had begun. It was a tough game, but our spirited team rose to the occasion and took control of the game early. We scored on a long pass play in the first quarter, then mounted a sustained drive to score again in the second period, and carried a 13-0 lead at the half. There was no whooping and hollering in the locker room at halftime, however. There was no doubt surprise at what had unfolded, and there was serious commitment to not let an opportunity slip away. When we took the field for the second half, we once again huddled together before the kick-off. Before I could utter a word to the team, I felt a tapping on my shoulder. I turned to face Barry Jackson, one of our linemen. "Hey Coach," he whispered, "Say that little prayer again. Man, that thing really works!"
Well, we didn't say the little prayer before the second half, but it did become a pre-game tradition for us during that season. And by the way, we won the opener 26-7 and took the first step toward a championship season. And about the jitters? They settled down for a few days, but always returned the night before the night before.