If leading was easy, everyone would do it. But the reality is that not everyone is cut out to be a leader. It is hard work. Leaders are willing to do more than others. Leaders are willing to take the actions necessary to succeed.
I grew up in a small town in Central Illinois. Like many small towns across America, my hometown of Taylorville revolved around our local high school sports teams. Friday nights in the fall, you went to the high school football game. On Fridays and Saturdays in the winter, you went to the high school basketball game.
I wish that I could say I grew up watching a great high school football team, but unfortunately Taylorville was not known for football in the 1980’s and early 90’s. From the time I was born until my entry into high school, Taylorville had two winning seasons and they hadn’t been in the playoffs in over a decade. We were not known as a “football school”.
During my Freshman and Sophomore years playing high school football, we typically began the season with forty or fifty kids on the team but we were so bad that kids would quit throughout the season and we would end up with around 30 kids on the team.
With a couple of games remaining my sophomore year I developed shin splints in my legs: a very painful condition that results from playing on the rock-hard soil that was typically dried out from lack of rain in August each summer in Central Illinois. The only way that I can describe the pain of shin splints is that it feels like someone is tearing the muscle away from your shin bones. Every step, every stride brings new pain.
The only cure for shin splints is rest, which isn’t exactly an option as long as the season continues. Once shin splints set in, you will have the pain until the season is over. But I pushed through the pain the last few weeks that sophomore year.
That season, our team won two games and lost seven. Hardly the success that a fifteen year old boy envisions. However I continued to push myself. In the offseason, I worked hard every day in the weight room trying to make myself stronger. I pushed myself physically every week. I believed that I could be part of a team that would have a winning season. I believed that we could become winners.
Next season, my junior year, we got a new head coach. Perhaps this would be a fresh start that our school needed. Scott Alberssen took over as our head coach that summer. Everyone welcomed the new coach, but many of the players, myself included, remained skeptical that success on the field would follow the coaching change.
In mid-August, every high school football team in Illinois begins practicing on the same day with two-a-day practices. We were no different as my junior year of football began. On a hot, humid Midwestern Wednesday the players came together with the new coaches for the first official practice.
We practiced for two hours and then ran for thirty minutes, not once but twice that day. We repeated the same practice schedule: twice on Thursday and twice again on Friday.
Two-a-day practices are also designed to weed out players that can’t handle the physical demands of playing football. At the end of almost every practice the first week, players make the walk into the coaches office to turn in their football pads and to quit the team. By Friday’s practice several boys had already quit.
My father taught me to finish what I started. In my house, quitting was not an option. However, on that particular Friday three days in to my junior season, I began to feel the pain of shin splints. By Friday night, the pain became excruciating as we practiced and conditioned on the ground that was dried out from the lack of rain. I also knew from last year’s experience that once I got shin splits, I would have them until the season concluded: more than three months later.
By Friday night, I had had enough. I made the decision that night that I would complete the last practice of the week on Saturday morning, but I would be turning in my gear to the coach after Saturday’s practice. I wasn’t going to put myself through three months of shin splints to be a part of a team that probably wouldn’t win many games anyway. I had even played out in my mind how I would participate in Saturday’s practice, then wait until everyone had left the locker room after practice so I could make the walk into the coaches office to turn in my gear. I would blame my shin splints as the main reason for quitting. I was done.
The next morning, our team lined up at the beginning of practice and our new coach began practice by announcing the captains for the team. One by one, he called off the names of three seniors, all of whom were very deserving teammates.
Then Coach Alberssen, this new coach, said that he was going to do something that he had never done before. He was going to name one junior to be a captain along with the three seniors. And then he said something that shocked me and took me by complete surprise. He said, “Matt Hart, please come forward.”
In my mind, I didn’t know if he said my name by accident or if maybe perhaps there was someone else on my team that I didn’t know who had the exact same name.
To this day, I can still recall the slow walk that I made through all of the other players up to the front of that team. I stood beside the three seniors that had been named captains and I faced all of the other young men that made up that team. At sixteen years old, this was my first leadership moment in my young life.
A new coach was willing to make me a leader and he was willing to elevate someone like me to that role. I had been pushed to a new limit physically and emotionally but when you are called to lead, you play through the pain. I had been pushed to my limit, but my persistence put me in a position to be a leader.
Our team finished 3-6 that season, but it set the stage for my senior year when we would finish 8-2, delivering our hometown it’s first winning season in a decade, its first playoff appearance since the 1970’s, and a thrilling victory over the number-one ranked team in state on a last second field goal: a game that is still talked about in Taylorville more than twenty years later. It also led to more than two decades of winning seasons that would follow.
The next time that you are pushed to your limit, the next time you are ready to quit, ask yourself what might happen if you just stuck it out for one more day, one more month, or maybe one more year. Perhaps you are on the brink of something great, you just need to forge ahead despite the pain.
Great leaders find a way to move forward when times are tough. Nothing worthwhile comes without struggle.