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

Coaches had specific messages they wanted the young men to learn. First of all, in suspending the entire team when only a few players had engaged in the bad behavior, they hoped the boys learned that standing by while their football brothers make bad decisions, including bullying others, makes them as guilty as those who call names.

As Roosevelt Junior High principal Dean Wilson told them in their character class on Monday — there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.

“Peer pressure is a powerful tool to get everybody on the same page,” said DeCol. “The best way to get accountability is to include everyone.”

It isn’t just football players who’ve learned life-changing lessons this week.

“I think what the coach has done is amazing,” said Brooklyn Sumner, 20, who graduated from Union High but attended Friday night’s homecoming game with friends. “Just through the years, the football team has gotten away with so much stuff, and I think it shows respect for the community and how much he respects the team that he wants them to be the best they can.”

Sumner and 12-year-old Shyanne Spencer said they’ve been the victims of bullying, and they also said it sends a message to bullies that their behavior won’t be tolerated. And if one is a victim of bullying, telling somebody might actually help.

That was the message a father from Illinois delivered to Nielsen, whose son Gavin is a captain on the team.

“He said he was proud to know there is a school with integrity and teachers who have an interest in all kids, in what they’re doing and how they treat each other,” said Nielsen, whose eyes cloud with tears as he recounts the call. “His boy was involved with football a couple of years ago, and was a victim of bullying. He said if his son had coaches like these maybe he’d still be here today.”

The boy took his own life rather than deal with daily taunts, something that caused Nielsen to break down, even hours after the call ended.

“I cried with him, and told him how sorry I was,” said Nielsen. “We want to make a difference every day. That’s why I’m in this job. I want to make a difference. As I walk down the hall, I know somebody needs my hello, they need my actions, my enthusiasm, my attention.”

Students who packed the stands every Friday night said they’ve noticed a difference, as have the parents, even the parents of those boys who didn’t earn their jerseys back.

“I’ve seen changes, even around the house,” said Russ Nielsen, principal of East Elementary and the man who hired Labrum. Russ Nielsen’s son was one of the eight boys who did not earn his jersey back by Wednesday’s deadline. While there was some sadness about missing the homecoming game, his son is determined to finish what he started. He made breakfast for his family on Tuesday morning and did laundry that he usually leaves for his mom. He’s met with the other boys whose grades are still unacceptable, and they’re helping each other get caught up so they can once again wear that jersey they now cherish in a much more meaningful way.

“Tuesday evening after they visited the Villa, which is an old folks home, he visited with the ladies who clean windows, and then he came home and said, ‘That was actually fun,’ ” Russ Nielsen said as he and his family fired up a propane heater before Friday’s homecoming game. “We had a really good talk, and I said, ‘You realize you and your buddies could do that all of the time. … You could make a huge difference.’ ”

The boys who fought so hard to earn those jerseys back said they won’t take the opportunity to represent their school for granted again. Whether they earned the right to play Friday night or not, they feel changed as people because they know their coaches see more than wins or losses in them.