When he falls over, he gets back up. Sometimes that tumble involves a welt on the forehead, scraped knees or a fat lip. But he always gets back up.
That’s the story of a toddler who is just beginning to walk and eventually run with his hands in the air to help keep his balance. After a year of rolling, scooting and crawling, the perseverance of putting one foot in front of the other eventually pays off with greater mobility and independence.
The human instinct to overcome those bangs and bruises is engrained from a young age.
But as toddlers grow into their preschool, grade-school and teenage years, the trials and tribulations of life become more diverse and complex, and most adolescents find themselves facing one adversity or another, whether that may be a loss of a family member, a traumatic brain injury or simply the feeling of being insignificant.
Whatever the case, whatever the age, when a serious difficulty or misfortunate hits, the solution is often a case of figuring out how to get up and put the next foot forward. As most high school athletes and coaches will attest, the environment created by sports and a culture of teammates is perhaps the best avenue to go head first at an obstacle and rise above it.
In particular, the term adversity is one that goes hand-in-hand with football, where gridders physically get knocked down and are asked to get back up during each and every play of a game.
“The thing that I would emphasize is, first of all, we’re really fortunate in football,” University School fifth-year head coach Ben Malbasa said. “You know, we coach and play a sport that is by far the most obvious in its presentation of adversity. There is something very real about getting knocked down and having to get back up. And, so, I think the thing that we emphasize is that element.”
On the gridiron in Hunting Valley, the 2019 Preppers are returning from a 4-6 campaign and trying to solve the puzzle of getting back to the playoffs after back-to-back Division III appearances in 2016 and 2017.
With 130 years of tradition at the forefront, the University boys are part of the oldest high school football program in Ohio.
“One of the things that I tell my guys all the time is, look, when you make the decision to commit to football, you do something that, let’s face it, is countercultural,” Malbasa said. “It’s unique. There is not another sport that is as demanding. And I’ve coached multiple sports. I love all sports. But there’s something uniquely demanding about football in a sense that you are physically going to get taken down and have to get back up.”
Over at Division I Solon, meanwhile, 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide is prepping his Comets to expect the unexpected, he said.
The Solon football program was 11-0 during home playoff games at Stewart Field before losing a 28-15 affair with Canton McKinley in the first round of the postseason last November.
“I think we try to put guys in situations in practice, even in the weight room, situations that get them out of their comfort zone,” McQuaide said about preparing for adversity. “We’re all good at doing things we like and things that we enjoy, but you don’t always get to do that.”
Perhaps one of the most notable players to overcome adversity in recent Solon history was 2016 graduate Tim Harmody, who broke his tibia and fibula bones during the Comets’ playoff game against Stow-Munroe Falls his senior season but was cleared four months later and was a part of Solon’s district title run in basketball and state final-four run in baseball.
During the Solon football team picnic with parents on Saturday night, a tradition going on for more than 40 years, adversity was discussed, McQuaide said.
“One thing we talk about is nothing’s going to go exactly the way we want this season, for all of us: parents, players, coaches,” he said. “So, there’s going to be ups and downs. It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. If we band together and know that we’re all here to help each other, that’s probably the best way to get through those times where it’s not good, or it doesn’t seem worth it, or it’s just not going your way.”
At Division IV West Geauga, a program that had a player diagnosed with cancer two years ago and another player who lost a parent last year, amidst two coaching transitions in just as many years, the Wolverines now have a sense of continuity as they gear for their first playoff bid since 2015.
Second-year head coach Adam Sopkovich said he tries to put his gridders in adverse situations during each and every practice.
“Football is one of those sports that mirror life,” he said. “It’s very odd and very humbling at the same time. In one play, you can face many, many trials of life. There’s true life adversity, and there’s the sport adversity. How do we overcome either one of them?
“You can’t just sit on your heels and say, ‘All right, it’s going to be over soon.’ No, you’ve got to look at it in its face. Bullets are going to be flying at you. In life, the bullets don’t stop flying at you just because you want them to. You have to take action.”
At Division IV Hawken School, where 2019 graduate Evan Ditchman was the face of adversity in his student-coaching duties last year, after suffering a traumatic brain injury on the field in 2017, the Hawks are now trying to overcome a rough patch as a program on the heels of a 0-9 campaign and just 22 players on their roster for this fall.
When the Hawks hit the road to open their new season against Trinity on Friday night in Garfield Heights, they’ll be aiming for their first win in 679 days.
“For us, it’s been mainly dealing with adversity as a team,” second-year head coach Brian Stephenson said. “Coming up on Aug. 30, it’ll have been 670-some days since we last won a game at Hawken. And, so, it’s that team adversity for us and learning what it takes, physically and mentally, to overcome that.
“So, that’s one of those things we’re really pushing, is how do we handle each practice period, how do we handle each day? If we can learn to handle the adversity in practice and the adversity of our day-to-day lives, it’s going to translate onto the field into perseverance and help us in total.”
With just four seniors and four juniors on their 2019 roster, the Hawks will be leaning heavily upon their eight sophomores and six freshmen this fall.
At Division V Gilmour Academy, which has 33 players in its program this year, the Lancers also find themselves playing big brother to help a dozen freshmen grow up quickly.
“When you come into our program, you kind of get thrown into the fire right away, and it can be daunting,” fifth-year head coach Chris Kosiorek said. “You take a kid that was just playing eighth-grade football for CYO or a public school, and they come in, and all of the sudden they’re playing varsity, and the hits are coming hard, and they are taking on a vigorous academic program; you know, there are several kids just at the beginning of the year that are asking, ‘Am I in the right spot?’”
For the Gilmour gridders returning from last year’s 11-1 campaign, fresh in their memory is the glory of going 11-0 followed by the tribulation of losing a triple-overtime battle against Orrville, which went on to win its next three games in decisive fashion for the Division V state title.
And for those returning Lancers, much of their success this year is dependent upon underclassmen keeping their noses to the grindstone.
“I talked to three particular freshmen this year who were thinking about not necessarily playing because they were overwhelmed,” Kosiorek said. “But they all said to me that they’re not quitters and they’re going to fight through this. So, I think that’s teaching them great lessons so, when they start to get older and they go on to college, it prepares them to face adversity when times are tough.”
At Division IV Orange, the Lions are out to take the next step as a program. After nearly three decades without a playoff berth, the Orange gridders reached the postseason in 2017 and in 2018 but lost their first-round games both seasons.
Orange didn’t have its deepest roster or its most talented players the past two seasons, but it had guys who were willing to put the team before the individual and figure out how to help each other in order to win, 11th-year head coach Adam Bechlem said.
“That has been a huge factor of our success these past couple years, is having a strong response to the different events that come up,” he said. “When there is adversity, you have a plan for it. You press pause, you kind of access the situation and not make it bigger than what it really is.
“Like, ‘Man, this happened. What do we do next? How do we solve it? Or, how do we work on it?’ You know, ‘I have a fractured thumb.’ So, what does that mean? Does that mean I’m totally out, or does that mean I have to play in a cast and change the way I do stuff?”
At Division IV Chagrin Falls, the Tigers attacked their 2018 campaign without 12-year assistant coach Gerry Stueber, who died of a heart attack at age 66 the preceding spring. Chagrin Falls 25th-year head coach Mark Iammarino said Stueber was a true players’ coach who cared about kids and told and showed kids how much he cared about them, and they truly felt that.
Without Stueber, the 2018 Tigers went through the adversity of a 0-5 start to their campaign before persevering and winning four of their final five games.
“I think adversity is really one of the biggest life lessons that can be learned, not only from football but from all sports,” Iammarino said. “Not everything is going to go wonderfully well all the time. And it’s how you respond to that, because it’s easy to be on top when everything’s going well. It’s hard to pick yourself back up when it’s not going well and you have to find a way to fix it.
“The perfect example for us was last year; one point in time we were 0-5 playing some really tough teams, and we were an inexperienced team last year. So, we took our lumps. I think it would have been very easy for our kids to start looking towards basketball or wrestling or whatever it was. But we really turned it around the second half of the year and went 4-1 and had a real strong finish. And I think that’s overcoming adversity.”