Union coaches hoped to help their players and became an inspiration to people they've never met

Published: Saturday, Sept. 28 2013 9:25 p.m. MDT

After losing 41-21 to Emery in their homecoming game, the players stand and recite the character quote they memorized for head coach Matt Labrum Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in Roosevelt, Utah.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

ROOSEVELT — The chaos of post-game handshakes and homecoming festivities obscured the first few seconds of a moment eight days in the making.

After congratulating Emery High School on a well-played game, one boy in Union black and gold turned to his teammates and started to recite a quote about character. His teammates immediately joined him until they were all speaking in unison words that express the importance of choices in creating men of great character.

It wasn’t planned, and many people never noticed.

But one group of men was deeply moved by the decision of the players to recite a quote they were asked to memorize by Wednesday if they hoped to earn the opportunity to play Friday night. It was the coaches who’d suspended the entire junior varsity and varsity teams last Friday night because of off-field issues ranging from skipping classes to cyber-bullying.

“All of the coaches, everybody to a man, felt really passionate about it,” said assistant coach Justin DeCol. “When (head) coach (Matt) Labrum told us some of the stuff regarding the bullying … it struck us all really strong. I had a pretty good idea it would go well. We had to correct some things. But I always felt pretty good that they’re good kids and that most of them are going to try to do what we ask them to do.”

The coaches felt confident their decision would be met with positive attitudes from players and even most of their parents and community members. That’s where their concerns ended. None of them ever anticipated anyone outside the small eastern Utah town would care about their struggle to combat problems parents, teachers and coaches in every community deal with every day.

They didn’t see their situation as unique, and they certainly didn’t feel their approach to rectifying the problems was anything special.

“We were just trying to help our kids,” Labrum said. “Things had gotten to a point, we felt we needed to take a stand.”

The coaches, some of whom have sons on the team, simply came up with what they felt was the best plan to help their boys be better students, better leaders and better community members. In doing so, they became a source of hope and inspiration to people across the country.

“We were just wondering how our community was going to respond,” said DeCol, who teaches at Roosevelt Junior High. “Never did we think there would be a statewide response or a national response. All of that went far beyond what any of us intended.”

Labrum has been inundated with media requests for interviews, something the coach was uncomfortable with as he felt it might distract from what they were trying to accomplish. But because of that media exposure, school officials and coaches have received hundreds of voicemails, emails and letters expressing gratitude and support from as far away as Canada, Texas and Florida.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this at all,” said principal Rick Nielsen, who said he’s had 350-400 emails and phone calls. “And yet as busy and tiring as it’s been, it’s been so rewarding. … We’ve had people calling every day saying, ‘Thanks for standing up and doing the right thing for kids.’ I had no idea it would be this big, but moving forward, we want to make sure we continue to try and reach every kid, not just our athletes or our football team. We have coaches doing this in their own programs in every sport.”

From the superintendent’s office to the youngest members of the community, everyone can rattle off a list of lessons they learned in what might be the most unusual homecoming week in school history.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned from this is that if you take a positive stance, you don’t know what kind of an effect it can have,” said Labrum. “Just how this has blown up across the entire nation, it’s unbelievable.”