To have clear eyes and full hearts, they had to lose.
A Utah high school football coach blindsided his players when he announced last weekend he was suspending all 80 of them — and warned that they had to earn their way back onto the squad by showing good character.
Coach Matt Labrum’s unconventional play wasn’t just about the team’s on-field record, although they had just come off a crushing loss. He was more concerned about how the Union High School teens were handling themselves away from the gridiron after hearing reports of cyberbullying, bad grades and truancy.
Essentially, they had to earn “the privilege to play.”
“We want student-athletes that are humble to learn and grow through adversity and success on and off the field,” coaches wrote in a letter passed out Saturday and obtained by the Deseret News. “We want a team that others want to associate themselves with and support; winning isn't the most important criteria for that to happen.”
The uplifting letter also listed five things each player must fulfill if they want to rejoin the team, which represents the small city of Roosevelt: They have to make an effort to attend every practice; be on time; receive no F’s or disciplinary problems in class; do an individual service project that helps their families; and memorize a quote about good character — and recite it to a coach.
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Union High School’s football team suffered a 40-16 loss at their last game — but that wasn’t what drive the coaches to bench the entire team.
The expectations shocked some of the kids — and the idea that there could be no more football left some of them in tears.
“When they said we’re going to turn our jerseys in, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve never been cut.’ I figured we’d just been cut. There were no more games. I was sad,” junior Jordan Gurr told the Deseret News.
But Labrum was adamant that his boys needed to refocus.
Earlier this week, he had the benched players do community service.
“We did some service as far as digging weeds and cleaning,” he told CBS News. “On Tuesday, we went to the senior center and played some games with them and listened to their stories.”
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Players with Union High School’s football team hit the books first to show that they’re ready to get back on the field.
Already, dozens of the players have earned their jerseys back and they’ll be able to return to the field this week.
Some parents were initially upset with Labrum and the other coaches, but they reconsidered when they saw how their sons were taking the challenge seriously, the Deseret News said.
“I thought, ‘Why is this a team-type issue when there should be individuals that should be held accountable?’” parent Jeremy Libberton griped.
But after reconsidering, “I’m encouraging my boy to stand strong, to stand with the team and get through it. … If there is not unity with me and the coach, then I become part of the problem,” he added.
Labrum said he hopes to see a lasting effect on his players each time they slip on their uniforms so that they understand what they do is greater than the game.
“I think a lot of lessons were learned this week, (and) I think some will be learned later in life,” he said. “I think this is something that we’ll all remember.”