Creating Vision for your Freshmen - Captains Practice

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I was blessed to have as my Head Football Coach a man by the name of Vic Paternostro. Coach Paternostro, may he rest in peace, is New Jersey’s all-time winningest scholastic football coach. He spent all 43 years of his coaching career at Pope John, where he amassed a record of 373-67-5 for an .838 winning percentage.

Paternostro’s teams won 18 NJSIAA Non-Public playoff championships and boasted a 44-17 playoff record.

He was elevated to head coach his second year at Pope John, bestowed with the task of turning around a program that had won a single game over the previous seven seasons.

 
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When I was an incoming Freshman at Pope John High School in Sparta, NJ we had what was called Captains Practice. They were “voluntary” workouts throughout the month of July that were focused on conditioning and learning from the Seniors.

The “voluntary” portion was starkly described … You can suffer in July or you can suffer MORE in August. It is your choice.

Suffering was going to happen. Less of it seemed better. Let’s go in July.

I learned afterwards that suffering happened irregardless of what happened in July but I digress (smile).

The cool part of Captains Practice was learning from the Seniors.

I was an aspiring offensive lineman with strong emphasis on the word aspiring.

Whatever position you were aspiring to, you went to where the Seniors were and they taught you some basics.

 
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Our head coach had 2 special position groups that were closest to his heart: Offensive Linemen and Linebackers. He spent most of his time with those two groups.

That first night he was with us and I’ll never forget that.

I remember that first evening him telling us tiny Freshmen … “Men, I want you to watch the Seniors. The way they do it, is the way you should do it.”

Then came the key phrase … “This is about vision. You have to see where you are going. You have to see the way it should be done. If you don’t see it, you won’t do it, you won’t live it. Tonight is all about SEEING it. Tonight is all about Vision."

He would have the Seniors get in their stance and fire off the ball again, again and again. He would have us watch from the front, from the back, from the right side and the left. He would praise or correct the Seniors but he would do it in such a way that you knew he was teaching you, not so much the Senior.

“I don’t want you doing anything else but watching and focusing on them.”

So we watched …

 
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At the end of practice … “Men, I want you to go home and play over in your head what you watched tonight. Tomorrow you will watch some more AND the Seniors will start watching you.”

After practice that night, Coach called me over as he was sitting on the bleachers. “Judd” as he waved me over. I was half elated Coach knew who I was, knew my name and half scared to death … “What did I do? Lord, have mercy. I’m too young to die."

Yes, Sir. “Sit, down. Let’s talk." He asked me about my parents, why I liked football, what I thought of Captains Practice ... I don't remember much of what he said, unfortunately, but I do remember walking away knowing that Coach cared about me.

The next night we started trying to imitate the Seniors. We quickly learned we were not very good at it. “Did you people SEE anything last night?"

So we would watch some more.

But even as an ignorant Freshman I really appreciated what Coach was doing. Even though my body had not quite caught up to the speed, precision and perfection of the form that Coach was seeking … I still had that vision, I knew … I saw what he was looking for. I knew what it was supposed to look like. That made our learning and our progress so much more effective.

I always had a tremendous amount of respect for Coach. He was tough, extremely strict and very demanding but he was always fair and he was almost always right. He also always explained everything very well. You always knew why you were doing something. When you made a mistake he always explained what you did wrong and why you needed to do it again.

 
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We were blessed with a very talented Freshman team that year, certainly not due to my prowess but nonetheless. At the end of summer team camp where we spent a week in upstate NY, Coach would always invite one of the best teams in NY to bring their Freshmen, JV and Varsity squads to scrimmage us. Each squad got to watch the scrimmages of the others. It was the highlight of camp.

We finally got to hit other people!

But this year, the Freshman squad was from another school and man were they big. We didn’t care. We all just wanted another team to compete against.

We dominated.

After the game, in front of the JV and the Varsity, Coach said. “Freshmen, I’m very proud of you. That was a State Champion HS JV team you just took part. Well done. When you SEE, when you have vision, good things happen right? Now before your heads get too big go take a lap around the lake and come cheer on your JV brothers."

That was the happiest, most spirited run around any lake in the history of mankind (slightly biased personal opinion).

Coach sometimes ruled with a gruff exterior but the program thrived through its closeness. He took his assistants and their wives to fancy dinners before the season and picked up the tab. He arrived at chilly practices with hot chocolate for his staff. He wrote handwritten cards for each coach at the conclusion of the season.

He invited the defense to his home for elaborate Friday night dinners that he would cook himself — soup, handmade pasta, ravioli, mounds of fresh bread.

On Sundays, the offense would come over for breakfast.

The team was about FAMILY.

Virtue = Strength, Lou Judd 
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