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Beyond the Friday Night Lights

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"I teach high school English and I coach JV football."

There's usually a startled pause, as if I'd just stated that Duke and UNC are equally favorable institutions.

People have a hard time understanding my dual interests. For nine hours a day, I push and prod my students at Jordan High School to find beauty and meaning through the works of Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston. We write a great deal. They complain. I push further. They pull back, before diving forward in a way that inspires me every single day.

In the afternoon I drop my literary hat to become a JV football coach. The teaching here is really quite the same, only louder.

I often apologize to my wife for becoming a ghost this time of year, but she understands me better than I understand myself. She's not a huge fan of the sport, but she knows what it does for the young men I work with.

I love that fact that all students in Durham have to pass English in order to play football. You don't like reading? Too bad. You'll give it a shot because I've got something you want. Essay writing isn't any fun? Well guess what, you're going to learn analysis and argumentation until these skills mix effortlessly with your knowledge of offensive and defensive fronts.

Crazy notions begin to develop in their scattered young brains. Why rep with the Bloods or the Crips when the tightest gang in town meets every afternoon on a dusty field behind the school? Why not do homework if it gives me 55 brothers I respect, along with three new fathers who care about me?

Perhaps a handful of these freshman and sophomores will eventually earn college football scholarships. Others, hopefully, will garner academic grant-in-aids. For some, football is the carrot that engenders positive behavior in school. It is a family where one may not exist otherwise. Football teaches trust and humility. It gives these young men a loyal group of adults who care about them and who want to see them grow into productive citizens.

Coaching is a highly political act. It fosters new ideas. It improves lives. It opens doors that may have seemed locked forever.

I coach high school English and I teach JV football. They are one and the same.

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