The following essay was written by 2013 alumnus Liam Cash, and is a follow up piece to Coach Rayburn Greene's post, Raising Strong Men Doesn't Happen by Accident. Liam is graduating in three weeks from UCF and working full-time for Walt Disney World.
Coach Rayburn Green will likely be remembered as one of the greatest things that happened to Seven Rivers Athletics. He represented and demonstrated all of those important qualities that a high school boy needed to learn before going out into the world and becoming an adult. For me, the most impactful of these qualities was confidence. Coach Green would be the one to teach me one of the most valuable lessons I could have learned through my high school years, and I never even made it through a season of football.
Spring break had just finished and time was almost up for my life as a pudgy, longhaired middle schooler when the news was announced: Seven Rivers Christian School was starting a football program. The announcement was met with a fair mix of cheers and confusion. Although it was a big step for our little private school, which at the time barely had 300 students from K-12th grade, the prevailing worry was that there would not be enough boys to make up a team. But that wasn’t what the boys in my class were thinking.
Sitting in the gymnasium, I wiped my awful long hair out of my eyes for the fourth or fifth time, and kicked off my Under Armour sliders. The echoes of cheers from all the high school students were shaking the walls. All the guys could not wait to put on those pads and knock each other to the ground. I, on the other hand, was not sure what to think. I certainly loved watching football, but playing it? The thought of running around in the Florida heat for hours at a time was not particularly fun to consider. Nor was the idea of spending my afternoons getting hit, and hitting others again and again. It’s not that I was a pacifist; I just wasn’t the football type.
I can’t do it.
Everyone would expect me to play. An upcoming freshman already over six feet tall, with broad shoulders—I was the obvious candidate. But I had told my classmates that I didn’t want to. Basketball was my sport, and I was already committed to a summer league. It was a worthy excuse to get out of playing football. But that wasn’t enough to keep my friends from insisting I try out. John Iwaniec was the only boy in our high school who had actually played football from a young age. He was also one of my best friends, so saying no to him got harder each time.
“Just try it out man,” he said, “If you end up not liking it at least you can say you gave it a shot.”
Well after a few weeks of everyone in the school asking for me to play football the truth became quite clear—peer pressure was too hard to ignore.
I can’t do it.
It was May. The sun shined bright over the freshly cut grass. I had not even started to run across the field or drop down for push-ups and sit-ups, but I was already sweating. Most of it was from the heat, but I was nervous too. It surely wouldn’t take long for all my friends to see that maybe it would be better for me to not play football. The sweat dripped down into my eyes as I stood there waiting for it to begin.
About twenty upcoming 9th-12th grade boys stood on the practice field as Coach Green came walking out with his Crimson Tide hat. He was taller than most of the boys standing there, and his dry fit shirt stuck to his arms and chest, definitely the guy you would look at and go, “I hope I’m in that good of shape when I’m his age.” When he walked onto the field we circled up and his southern drawl began to establish the goals for the summer ahead.
“Listen up boys,” he said in the middle of the circle, “The goal for the next few weeks has to do with conditioning. Most of y’all have never played a real game of football in your life.”
He went around the circle being sure to look every boy in the eyes.
“Y’all aren’t in shape for football. I’m gonna get you into shape. We’re gonna run, we’re gonna get stronger, and we’re gonna sweat it out in this heat together. I am going to push you harder than you have ever been pushed so that when the season starts and you walk out on that field, you are ready to knock whoever is in front of you off his feet.”
Most of the other boys were excited thinking about that first time under the Friday night lights. But I was busy concentrating on certain words that added to my lack of confidence. “I am going to push you harder than you have ever been pushed.”
I can’t do it.
Throughout the following weeks, Coach Green made good on his word. My afternoons were filled with sprints, push-ups, and the headaches that came with running full speed into another boy of my size. I was used to the running from several years of playing basketball, but it was the football drills that I had difficulty picking up on. Most of the passes thrown to me I would drop, I would usually be the last guy to finish a set of push-ups, and if I tried to tackle someone it would usually end with me on the ground and the intended target running past me. I was a big guy, but I wasn’t especially strong, and it showed. More and more practices passed and there was little to no improvement. The other boys started to develop the ideal form for tackling, blocking, and protecting the ball while I could not seem to pick it up. I was the guy whose physical appearance should have meant that I would be the ideal football player, yet I felt like I was the one that did not belong out there. Coach Green was always encouraging, but I could not escape the feeling that I just wasn’t strong enough to play football.
That’s what summer weightlifting sessions would fix. Another thing I was dreading, being in a room full of guys much stronger than I was, barely being able to lift a bar over my head. I was thinking it, but I hadn’t said it out loud, not yet.
I can’t do it.
It was early-June when it happened. It was a new week of weightlifting, and Coach Green was having us do something called German Volume Training. At each station we would do ten sets of ten. I looked over at the bench press, at the bar I would be lifting up over my chest one hundred times in the next hour. Three sets of five lifts -- that is something I had started getting used to. Lifting a bar just fifteen times still was not a walk in the park for me, but I could manage it. One hundred times was impossible.
I can’t do it.
The first set of ten was the only set that felt easy enough. But I knew that it was going to be impossible to get through nine more. The second set came and by the seventh lift I was already struggling. John Iwaniec stood behind me and helped with the tenth lift as my arms began to shake under the pressure. I was scared about the next one. Coach Green was walking around the gym floor, making sure everyone was lifting the right way. How weak would he think I was when I couldn’t even get through three sets of lifts?
I can’t do it.
I lifted the bar up for the third set. I lifted it up twice before my arms starting shaking. Sweat fell down my face. My head felt like it was ready to pop from the pressure. At the fifth lift John was grabbing the bar but still letting me do most of the work. That’s when Coach Green came over.
“C’mon Liam, you can do it,” he said leaning down next to me. “Just five more, keep pushing.”
The bar was down just above my chest. I could smell the metal as I desperately tried to push the bar up a sixth time. The pressure was continuing to build. My face was red, my head was shaking, and I exhaled short puffs of breath to try and push that bar up. My coach was watching, several of my teammates were watching, watching me fail. The bar was coming down, the muscles were giving up. It was over.
That’s when the words escaped from my mouth.
“I can’t do it.”
“You can’t?” My ears starting ringing when he yelled in my face. I felt the bar crush my chest. “You can’t?”
John and another guy lifted the bar up and back on the rack while I lay there defeated. Coach Green continued to yell out to all the boys in the gym.
“Never say that you can’t do something. Never say that you can’t overcome something. This bar is your life,” he said pointing at the metal bar, “And it is not easy. Life is going to weigh down on you but you never tell yourself that you can’t do it.”
He continued to pace around the gym floor. No one was speaking. No one was lifting a dumbbell or jumping rope. All eyes, all ears, everything was focused on that stern southern drawl as he continued.
“You work hard at life. You work hard at the gym. You work hard at football. You work hard at school. You work hard at your job, your marriage, your kids, and your life. How do you expect to succeed anywhere in life if you tell yourself that you can’t do it?
After those words he told everyone to get back to work, and then he came over to the bench press, leaned down, and looked at me.
“Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again,” he said.
Coach Green had called out one of my most crippling flaws to my young self, something that had been ever-present in my mind since the day I walked out onto the field the first day of practice. He called out my self-doubt, my lack of confidence, and my tendencies to not believe I could accomplish something.
As the next school year began I would not actually play football, nor would I for the remaining four years of high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could, more that I just didn’t enjoy it. Yet in that one month that I did play high school football, I was taught the most valuable lesson that I can remember from high school sports. And even though I may have not realized it then, that lesson stuck with me as I began high school. Confidence became a new feeling that I experienced. The following years would see me start a new club in my high school, win talent shows, and become senior class president, all things that I certainly would not have imagined myself doing going into 9th grade. My belief in my abilities had grown, my work ethic had increased, and a willingness to work at new things continued to grow. Going forward I had a different thought going through my head, one that continues to stick with me six years after Coach Green’s speech in the gym.