Union coaches hoped to help their players and became an inspiration to people they've never met
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.”
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.
“I learned that football is not all about being a good athlete,” said Zack Roll. “It’s more about being a good person, and football is just a game. Our coaching staff really cares about us, and our players really responded to our coaches. I think we all grew more respect for each other, for our coaching staff and we just became, as a team, more close.”
Russ Nielsen said the leadership Labrum exhibited this week is the reason he tried three different times to lure the 41-year-old Roosevelt native away from Parowan High. He finally agreed two years ago.
“I knew he expects more out of the boys than just football,” said Russ Nielsen. “He’s the kind of coach you want to have on staff for any of the sports. He’s a coach who loves kids and cares for them as individuals, and wants them to succeed in life. Athletics is minor compared to building good character and being able to overcome.”
DeCol said unexpected messages continue to reverberate throughout the community. A fellow teacher at the junior high stopped to thank him because she was a victim of bullying as a child.
“She felt it had made a difference over there (at the junior high),” DeCol said. “We thought of this in terms of our players and their families, but it’s everywhere. We’ve had emails from people who don’t necessarily even have ties to football, saying that was the inspiration they needed. The sheer width of the ripples and who contacted us was very surprising.”
Labrum added, “I think kids — and parents for the most part — want to be held accountable. They want responsibility, and they want to know somebody cares.”
The next challenge for the Union Cougars will be helping the remaining eight players become eligible while maintaining some of the behavior that began this week. Now, maybe more clearly than any speech could have described, the players understand the power of being a star athlete — good and bad.
“I think we understand that instead of taking advantage of (the special status), we have an idea of what kind of positive leaders we can be inside the school,” he said.
And while the rest of the world might be surprised that a coach could cancel football and be revered, supported and praised, Labrum said he never doubted how Roosevelt residents would react.
“I really wasn’t surprised,” he said, rubbing his hand across his bloodshot eyes, long after everyone's abandoned the modest grandstands on the west side of the football field. “I think that’s why the nation is surprised, but I know this community pretty well. I’m impressed with the community, and I knew what they were going to do. I thought there would be a couple of (critics), but I didn’t think it would be bad if we were able to talk to them. And I knew the boys would react positively.”
His advice to fellow coaches struggling with the endless demands of modern coaching is simple.
“Just always do what you feel is right,” he said. “Because you can live with yourself when you’re doing those types of things.”
The quote the boys memorized: "Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it, piece by piece — by thought, by choice, by courage and determination."