Exception to the Rule

Exception to the RuleSeveral years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting an accomplished former NFL player, Greg Joelson. We were attending a function that left both of us with a significant amount of time to talk—and talk we did. Greg is an extraordinary storyteller and told me about one of the most unusual paths to the NFL a young athlete could take.

I’ve thought a lot about Greg’s story over the years; I suspect it still resonates with me because it contains something I see often in my work as an educational therapist: a pervasive narrow-mindedness that fails to see and honor the outstanding abilities of young people. In many ways, Greg’s story is about a coach who put his attachment to his rules before the individual needs of a gifted young athlete—and even before the needs of his own team.

The story begins when Greg was a cheerful and popular 14-year-old excited to start ninth grade at his local public high school in Oregon. In addition to being personable and intelligent, Greg was extremely athletic. His school had a good football team, and the coach was a respected member of the community. By the end of ninth grade, Greg was bigger than his classmates and the fastest sprinter on the track team. He was looking forward to joining the football team the next year.

Greg was also passionate about working. He especially loved his job as a logger in the mountains of eastern Oregon. Every summer, he and a number of other men from his family and community would head up to the mountains to cut and haul timber. Logging in mountainous terrains is considered among the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs. Loggers must haul heavy equipment and chains up and down steep mountain slopes. They must manipulate enormous logs, some of which weigh over 25 tons. Only the fittest and bravest are cut out for this work.

It would seem that the coach of a competitive high school football team would be eager to have a top athlete on his roster, especially one who loved hard work and had spent his summer logging. To play on the team, however, the coach required that all players participate in summer workouts before the school year began. Greg explained to the coach that he wanted to play for the team, but he worked as a logger during the summer and would not be able to attend the summer workouts. The coach would not budge. He said Greg could work as a logger or play football, but he could not do both. Greg thought it over. Playing football meant everything to him. But then he thought how left out he would feel as the men from his community headed to the mountains without him and how unreasonable the coach’s demands were, so Greg went to the mountains.

He worked hard all summer. His legs became even stronger as he charged up and down the steep slopes. His arms and back bulged with muscles from lifting heavy equipment and wielding huge logs. Bright and observant, Greg watched the older men, how they worked together as a team and looked out for each other in their dangerous work. He worked hard and earned the respect of the older men. He felt proud of himself, proud to be part of a team of hard-workers who did a dangerous job.

As the summer wore on, the school year approached. Greg did not want to leave the mountains, but he thought about playing football. He thought his coach might make an exception. After all, he was undoubtedly in better shape than any player on the team. His logging work had been far more demanding than the team’s summer workouts.

Greg approached the coach in his office the first day of the new school year. The coach said he would not allow Greg to play on the team. It was painfully clear to Greg that the coach would never change his mind. Greg began to dread the coming years of high school. To hide his despair, he became a rebel and prankster. He made a practice of calling the coach by his first name, Tom [pseudonym], and he did it as often as he could. He was frequently in trouble and did poorly in his classes. For him, school became a waiting period until he could get back to the mountains and resume his work as a logger.

Greg’s remaining years of high school were uneventful and not particularly educational. Nevertheless, after graduating, Greg attended a local college, where he earned very good grades. He also joined the school’s football team. During his freshman year, Greg was watching a football game on TV between two PAC-10 teams. One of the teams was Arizona State. As he watched the game, he thought to himself that he was better than any player on the field, and he got an idea.

Greg transferred to Arizona State. The first thing he did when he arrived was walk into the football team manager’s office. He announced that he would like to join the team. Laughing, the manager told Greg that it was impossible to simply join one of the best college football teams in America. Greg was persistent, and he finally convinced an assistant coach to allow him to participate in spring tryouts. He stood on the sidelines for three weeks in the sweltering sun and was not given a chance to run a single play. On the last day of tryouts, he cut to the front of the line and demanded he be allowed to run a play against the top player. Greg knew how and where to position himself. His fierceness and agility impressed all watching. He was remarkably fast. Jaws dropped.

A few months later, Greg was a starter for Arizona State. A few weeks after that, he won wide recognition for racking up an unbelievable number of tackles in a single game. The story of the sophomore walk-on from a small town in Oregon became big news. Several news agencies picked up the story and ran it at the top of their sportscasts. Everyone wanted to know, “Who was your high school coach?”

“His name was Tom,” Greg said, “and he never let me play a game, let alone put on a uniform.” Tom was loved and respected by his community, but his dictatorial ways had cost his team the chance to have one of the best players to ever come its way.

Greg finished college as one of the best PAC-10 defensive players. He went on to play professional football with the San Francisco 49ers and two CFL teams.

It was not young Greg who had failed in his high school years; it was his coach who had failed him. The coach had failed to first see, and then honor, Greg’s unique gift. The coach had failed to honor the boy’s individual needs and, in doing so, had almost destroyed his hopes.

Too often, I see kids with learning challenges similarly beaten down. When we allow our schools’ desire for uniformity to blind us to a child’s gifts or our rigidity to prevent us from finding unique approaches to meeting each child’s needs, we have failed the child—and the entire community. Fortunately, Greg Joelson’s story had a happy ending. From it, we can learn the tremendous value of flexibility when working with children with unique needs and abilities.


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