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Young athletes discover coaches hold all the cards

If there is one thing Churchville’s Lyndsay Wall, a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team, has learned about being an athlete, it is this: Coaches can make you, or break you.

That is, not only can your coach change your career for better or worse, but he/she can change your life as well. Playing a sport without a contract, a union, an agent and an attorney can be incredibly iffy.

When you’re on a school team or its equivalent, a lot of decisions are made based on the whims of the person in charge. And if you’re affected, well, too bad. Your role on the team, and your playing time, can fluctuate wildly if the coach doesn’t like the way you dress when you’re not in uniform, or if you happen to be his/her nephew or niece.

See, a few months ago, Wall dodged a bullet, so to speak, although she calls it nothing more than “a slap on the wrist.” Ben Smith, who has coached the U.S. women’s team since its inception in 1996, dropped Lyndsay from the team, citing a conditioning problem. She was not, in his opinion, in hockey shape, and his opinion was the only one that counted.

Welcome to limbo, Lyndsay. Those of us who’ve been there know it’s an uncomfortable place where the only thing certain is uncertainty.

Wall had to wonder, what’s next? Could she get reinstated on the U.S. team, or was it back to the University of Minnesota to finish out her college career? Smith could’ve concluded that Wall didn’t “want it bad enough” and written her off for good. To his credit, he didn’t.

Wall was in town this week to help promote the U.S. women’s game against Finland on Dec. 15 at Blue Cross Arena and, because of her experience, I felt compelled to ask her about coaching, coaches and the games they play. “They can have a huge impact,” she said, “especially on young kids.”

And, with that, she pushed my hot button and my mind drifted back to 1959, when I was a senior at Fair Park High School in Shreveport, La. We were getting ready to go to New Orleans to play Fortier High in the state Class AAA basketball playoffs. After our last practice before leaving town, our coach—I won’t mention his name—pulled me, the team’s leading scorer, aside and said, “Rick, you’re playing the best you have all year. We’re ready for ’em!”

Well, not only was I not in the starting lineup, but our coach pulled the five starters after the first quarter. Had he put in the so-called second team, I would’ve gone into the game. Instead, he put in the third string, the top five players on the jayvee team. Of course, we got blown out.

I played only the last two minutes and have never forgotten how my teammates and I were betrayed by a coach who obviously wanted to lose the game. And there was nothing we, the players, could do about it. Someday, maybe I’ll find out why.

It made me wonder, what if the head coach at Louisiana Tech had decided Terry Bradshaw would be a better tight end than quarterback? After all, he didn’t even make all-city in his hometown and he was 6-3, 215 pounds. Wonder how many Super Bowl rings he would have as a tight end?

Then there was Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. Penn State recruited Kelly to be a linebacker, so he went to the University of Miami, where they let him throw the football instead of trying to make somebody fumble it. Wonder if he would’ve made the Hall of Fame as a linebacker?

I know a player from Rochester—again, no names—a starting defensive back for an area college who suffered an injury, who missed several games and who spent the rest of his career pacing the sidelines and wondering what might have been.

There is no doubt in my mind that my youngest son, Michael, would have been—sure, I’m a little biased—a very good basketball player his senior year in high school. He was 6 feet tall, could shoot the lights out and jump out of the building. However, that summer he chose to concentrate on golf instead of going to basketball camps and when practice started that fall, he was cut.

Unfortunately for many young athletes, and some older ones, coaches hold all the cards. It doesn’t matter if they are brilliant or boobs, if they are geniuses or don’t have a clue, if they have preconceived notions or a wide-open mind. You’re at their mercy.

The tragedy is, there is no telling how many talented athletes are robbed of an opportunity to get a college scholarship, or maybe even play a professional sport, because of some coach who has a hard head, or an empty head, but nothing to lose.

Rick Woodson’s column appears each week in the Rochester Business Journal’s print edition at www.rbjdaily.com. Listen to his weekly program, “The Golf Tee,” at 9 a.m. Sunday on WHTK-AM 1280.

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