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The things you learn from a high school football coach

The legend goes that Mark Bowles didn't just build the football program from the ground up, he had to plant it first. In the infancy days of Liberty Christian School, Bowles and whatever students he could recruit spent their free time clearing the gravel expanse bit by bit with the glimmer that it would one day become a football field.

By the time I arrived in 1999, Doc Gailey Field had grown into a picture-perfect postcard of America. Thirty-five hundred kids and parents out in support of a school with a thousand kids in kindergarten through 12th grade, our own small town in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. Moms and dads running the concession stand, smoke from the $2 hamburgers spilling down the sidelines. One dad volunteering his money and his Friday to paint the field, three dads manning the chain gang, another sounding the train horn after touchdowns, and the public address announcer the home team cherished and the visitors complained about. The home field advantage of making the opponent drive away from the train tracks because we knew that was the direction the field tilted slightly uphill. 

And there was Bowles, team after team, win after win, year after year.

That old gravel pit has since been traded in for a FieldTurf surface with a video screen beyond the north end zone, sitting proudly off the highway on the multi-million dollar, palatial new campus that wouldn't exist without Bowles. I was back there Friday night, for the first time in years, standing with more than 100 former players as we remembered the coach who passed away last Sunday. He was only 56. 

Watching the in memoriam video on that screen that likely cost more than the entire old stadium, I was 14 again, blood pumping with equal parts adrenaline and fear as this monument of a man asked me if I was ready to trade in the plain white helmet of junior high football for the proud navy lid that only high schoolers had the privilege to wear. Hearing that booming baritone of a voice, suddenly I was 16 again, sitting in a foreign locker room and quietly promising to myself that yes, I would be the meanest, strongest, hardest-hitting thing on the field that night.

Like few other things in life, it's not just the things you learn from your high school coach -"In football, just like in life, you take the tough stuff head on" - but the things you learn through him - that no matter where the ball, the approving roar of the crowd, and the credit goes, I'm going to drive this nose guard across from me clear off the ball.

High school coaches are simultaneously anchors and springboards. They're the tie that forever binds you to a time, to a place, to a feeling, to a group of people. And yet in the moment, in the four years you spend under their direction, they're the launching pad that sends you from adolescence into adulthood. More than anything else he accomplished in his 26 years, 212 wins, more than 20 district titles and three state championships, that's what Mark Bowles would've celebrated.

Whether or not he was there to see it, we all took a piece of him home with us on Friday night. 

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