It is well acknowledged and documented the cultural role that football plays in the South and the role of the church of the Southeastern Conference in particular during the fall and winter months. So, I figured that if we really want to get our message out and make it stick during this glorious time of year, we had better make the connection between college access and football. And, to be clear, it has nothing to do with athletic scholarships.
So, here are a few things that football teaches us about college access, starting with the offense:
The Playbook: Every good offense has a good playbook. This doesn’t mean it is the most complex playbook or that it has a bunch of flashy trick-plays. It means it has a playbook that 1) Matches the skills and goals of the team and 2) Is understood by all of the players and coaches across different roles and responsibilities. And yet, rather than prescribing every move, a good playbook and a good offensive coordinator allows space for audibles and ad-libs by the players based on their read of a given defense. College access and success requires a well thought-out and executed, but adaptable plan, and one that includes a team of supports with clear roles. For it to be implemented, it must be practiced over time in such a way that the player has the space to struggle on his way to success.
The Quarterback: We all know the role of the quarterback in leading the offense. Every coach knows that no matter what he controls during practice and how much he designs the plays, on game day he turns fate over to his quarterback. In college access, we too often fail to relinquish control to the quarterback, the student, whose decisions will ultimately determine his success. In our attempts to coach and facilitate the transactional components of the college access process (forms, fees, applications, deadlines), we fail to relinquish control to the student so he can succeed “on game day.” The student must be the quarterback of the college access and success process. He must understand and own the playbook in such a way that he is adaptable and can make decisions as needed outside of the playbook.
The Center: The center somewhat quietly triggers every play with the simple snap of the ball. This is the “spark” that ignites every play. After igniting, the center becomes a blocker (see offensive line below). In college access and success, every student needs a center (that’s actually deeper than I even intended). He may need someone to provide a spark, but he also needs a center who knows when to just be a blocker.
The Offensive Line: The offensive line blocks to protect the quarterback. That being said, they are not expected to block indefinitely, just a couple of seconds per play in reality. So, the quarterback has to make decisions in tandem with his blockers and vice versa. In college access and success, supportive adults and peers are the offensive line. As such, we can be the ones that deflect negative messages, that reinforce and support in moments of doubt, and that do some of the unrecognized work that makes college access and success a possibility. We have to know the playbook; we have to know when and where to move; and we have to be honest about whom we may need to block and, therefore, who or what is trying to tackle our quarterback.
The Fullback: As an extension of the blocking scheme, the fullback plays a critical role. He isn’t in on every play in most offenses. But, at critical moments, on the plays that often determine games, the fullback is the guy that puts his head down and takes on any barrier that gets in the way of his quarterback or running back. Different from the blocking of the offensive line, the fullback is targeted and forward moving, and requires a level of fearlessness that opens the hole for the runner. In college access and success, we have to recognize at what point we become the fullback and target our own leverage, power, and social capital to create the space for student success. Sometimes this can be ugly and confrontational work, or sometimes it is just really time sensitive, but it comes at a seminal moment for the student. We have to know when and where to be the fullback. But, we also have to understand that we are still just blocking, we can’t make the play.
The Wide Receivers and Running Backs: If a quarterback runs the ball every time by himself, he ultimately will get tired and his narrow strategy will lose its potency. So, every now and again, even the best running quarterback needs someone to hand the ball off to or pass to, someone to help carry the load. This is where the running back and wide receivers come in. In college access, students need someone to pass or hand the ball off to from time to time. But, we as running backs and receivers have to remember that it is still the quarterback that lines up and leads the team on the next play.
I wanted to start this discussion with the offense, because this is the controllable variable in the college access and success process. Defense, and perhaps even Special Teams, may follow in another blog.
So, let’s celebrate football season! Let’s cheer for our teams. But, when it comes to college access, let’s make sure we are not just fans, but understand our roles and responsibilities in supporting the opportunity of college access and success for all of our students who dream that dream.