On a rainy Friday in late August, the Evergreen Cougars' senior-level midget football team prepares for its final pre-season scrimmage. In eight days, the team is scheduled to open its season against the feared South Jeffco Gators, winners of last year's coveted Carnation Bowl, and a feeling of uneasiness hangs over the field.
Once a squad that dominated its opponents, the Evergreen team is in disarray. Last week's inter-league scrimmage was a mess. With the opening game of the regular season just over a week away, many parents are anxious.
For first-year coach Mike Mahoney, this is hardly unexpected. Rumblings of discontent "started five minutes after the first practice was over," he recalls. "My predecessor told me, 'If you don't win games 58 to nothing and go 11-0, parents will be furious at you.'"
Indeed, with that first big game looming, pressures are intensifying on the new coach. In recent weeks, the phone calls from irate mothers and fathers demanding that something be done have arrived with increasing frequency. Today, from the vantage point of a small softball-cum-football field in the foothills as a full-pad, light-contact practice gets under way, the reigning champs look like Visigoths -- or at least as much like Visigoths as thirteen-year-olds can look. "They're definitely the monsters of the midway," Mahoney says of the Gators.
"They don't have a single lineman under 160 pounds," warns Rebecca Schloegl, a league administrator and mother of a Cougar.
Adds assistant coach Mick Gorrell: "I heard their line averages 190."
Back in the parking lot, where the players' parents mill around talking, or wait in cars for their children, the mood is somber. "It's going to be an interesting year," says one.
If Mike Shanahan had to coach the Cougars for a year, maybe he'd stop whining so much about his job. Considering what Mahoney's juggled in the past month, the Broncos' coach is sitting on easy street.
With an exception here and there, the Broncos have left adolescence behind. Wrangling a posse of spoiled twenty-year-old millionaires may seem difficult, but it's simple addition compared with the advanced calculus of working with newly minted, hormone-crazed teenagers. "With puberty," says Schloegl, "we see this huge range of kids -- size-wise, strength-wise. Shaving-wise."
Shanahan has to direct an NFL team whose running back has a glass knee and whose tight end has a big mouth. But Mahoney must patch together a football squad in which the largest player, Nate Robison, the Cougars' powerful defensive end, is 6'4" and tilts the scales at 180 pounds -- and the smallest, Colton Himmelman, is a serious growth-spurt away from five feet and might weigh eighty pounds with a pocketful of quarters.
And unlike the NFL, midget-league rules require that everyone plays who wants to play -- no matter how perilous the outcome. "Some of these kids don't belong out here," Mahoney admits. "I've had conversations with parents in which I've said, 'If I put little Johnny in, the next conversation we'll be having is: Don't worry, little Johnny is fine; his leg is only broken.'"
Puberty doesn't just mark a sudden turning point in the bodies of young boys. It also signifies big changes in their organized football. Last year, when they turned twelve, the boys of the Jefferson County Midget Football Association moved from playing on a kid-sized, sixty-yard field to a full-sized one-hundred-yarder. Not only does that mean more running, but it means bigger collisions, too. Several Cougars, victims of enhanced velocity, are already nursing injuries.
At thirteen, midget football also lifts weight restrictions. For ages eight through twelve, the league vigorously enforces rules barring the biggest kids from ball-carrying and linebacker positions. Those weigh-ins, which shuffle the giants to the front lines, are an attempt to prevent the gruesome spectacle of a 175-pound eleven-year-old with a mustache plowing through tiny defensive linemen play after play, or an adult-sized linebacker gathering a lethal head of steam before leveling a pint-sized ball carrier.
With this team, all bets are off; anyone can play any position. As a result, Mahoney must preach the importance of first-strike capability. "Football is not about going out and having a Kumbaya warm-and-fuzzy time," the coach explains. "It's a violent sport. You'd better hit, and hit hard, and hit first, 'cause there's another kid out there who's being taught how to do that, and you're gonna get hit into next week.
"We have some kids who may literally get ripped to pieces," he adds, sighing. "It's a problem."
The Evergreen thirteen-year-olds are having a "rebuilding year" like Iraq is having a rebuilding year.
This year's Cougars are actually a combination team. Until now, the Cougars had enough kids to field two squads, Division I and Division II. The difference between the teams' skills could hardly be greater: Think New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova.
From the time they started together at age eight, the players in Division I Cougars stomped their opponents like Michael Flatley on hot coals, compiling a 45-7 record. In 2001, when the team members were eleven years old, they ran roughshod over the league, amassing an astonishing 514 points to their opponents' 52. Over four years, they won two championships and finished runners-up in another.
But the Division II team spent most of the past four years eating dirt, ending the same period 4-30 without once visiting the post-season.
As players age from twelve to thirteen, youth teams typically see a dropoff in participation. As Mahoney puts it: "All the nose-pickers are gone. They've gone home to play Xbox." Unfortunately, so have some of the jocks; last year's Division I star quarterback decided to concentrate on basketball, giving football a pass. Despite Mahoney's slick recruitment package, which included a professionally produced video, the two Cougars teams together lost more than a dozen players. In order to play this year, they had to merge the squads.
And Evergreen already had less to work with. Not only does the club draw from a smaller pool of players than its flatland opponents, but the players themselves are smaller. In an effort to compensate for this size deficit, Mahoney has brought in a daring new system: the single-wing offense, an obscure, half-century-old scheme that relies heavily on misdirection and subterfuge to gain yardage. "Everything we do is not normal," he says. "The league is very vanilla. Line up the biggest, meanest kids, and let them beat each other for four quarters, and the team with the best tailback wins. Well, I go around the mountain, not through it. We rely on massive movement and confusion."
Thus far, though, only the confusion has stuck. Despite regular Monday, Wednesday and Friday practices, mandatory Tuesday-evening film-study sessions, and a football-based homework assignment every week, Mahoney says the kids need more time to understand his complex, no-huddle offense. Many players still don't grasp the coach's unusual system of sending in plays from the sideline by flashing encoded placards to the quarterback. "And we've had to modify the flash cards," Mahoney sighs. "It turns out our quarterback is colorblind."
Underlying all this is the fact that the former Division I players -- and, more particularly, their parents -- aren't at all accustomed to losing. Division I's previous coach, Jeff Almquist, was a big reason for the team's success. A hard-driving drill sergeant, Almquist demanded discipline -- his practices were divided into ten-minute segments -- and expected victory.
This year he was swiped by the local high school team, leaving a gap at the top that promised nothing but headaches for his successor. Win, and Almquist's replacement was riding on Almquist's team; lose, and he'd feel the wrath of the comparison.
Into this swamp stepped Mahoney, a mellow, twenty-year veteran of midget-football coaching. Now 46 years old, with a large mop of graying BeeGees hair, he's never aspired to move up in the coaching ranks. "Here I have to deal with grumpy parents," he says. "But in high school, I'd have to deal with grumpy athletic directors, grumpy administrators -- all kinds of grumpiness."
On the other hand, he says, "I think it'd be much easier to be a professional coach -- look at all these agents I'm dealing with." He nods toward a gaggle of parents milling about the parking lot.
The inevitably unfavorable comparisons with Almquist started as soon as the boys put on their pads. "Some parents complain we practice too hard," Mahoney says. "And some complain it's too easy."
For a team accustomed to years of uninterrupted success, Saturday's scrimmage is a disaster. The Wheat Ridge team, which in the previous five years had managed to score a single touchdown against the Cougars, scores five this time, including two on interceptions. At a meeting after the scrimmage, Mahoney endures a withering interrogation-and-accusation session with angry parents.
He tries to remain upbeat. True, the Cougars scored no touchdowns, but the three offensive scores by Wheat Ridge represented minor failures in his team's defense. "The parents look at the scoreboard and say, 'We got slaughtered,'" he notes. "But the coaches are saying, 'Man, we're just a few plays away . . ..'"
But Monday's practice doesn't look any better. "Basically, we're seeing who can hang and who can't," says a grim Mahoney. "Everybody's really antsy." From parents, he adds, "I've heard nothing but panic."
Just how much panic is apparent in the head count. Out of 33 players, only 25 show up for practice. "I think the kids are ashamed," says Gorrell, the assistant coach. "As a parent and a coach, this is killing me."
Adds Schloegl, "I'm feeling so beat up I just want to sit down and cry."
Brian Roche, another one of the Cougars' assistant coaches, takes a different approach. Minutes before practice, he clashes with Mahoney's son, Keenan, the team's defensive coordinator, and storms off. He then climbs into his truck and drives away -- taking his son, the team's star running back and gifted free safety, with him.
"So it begins," mutters Keenan, as he trots onto the field to wrangle the remainder of the players.
After a series of calisthenics and wind sprints, Mahoney gathers the boys around him in a half-circle. "The past is the past," he tells them. "I know that some kids are really angry, some don't care, and some don't know what to think. Saturday was a tough day. All we can do is keep working. We've got to stay the course.
"Everybody thinks the Gators are going to kill us next week," he adds. "One hundred to nothing. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. But I don't believe it."
He asks what worries them. After an embarrassed silence, the complaints start rolling in, slowly at first, then in a rush. The offensive line stinks. So does pass coverage. The plays Mahoney calls are too razzle-dazzle. The coach nods after each comment.
"What's happening here is like snowboarding," he says. "How many people here did face-plants when they were learning to snowboard?" Most of the boys raise their hands.
"If you're not raising your hands, you're lying," Keenan says. The rest of the hands go up.
"Suddenly, if you keep at it, the face-plants stop," Mahoney continues. "Suddenly, you're not face-planting anymore. You're up on the rail in the half-pipe. All we're doing here, guys, is face-plants."
Before the team starts its regular Monday "fix-it day" practice, Mahoney lays out his vision for the 2003 Cougars. "Some of you played two years ago, and you were world beaters," he says. "Well, those days are over. It's too competitive out there. Don't buy into all the crap that's going around. You can be 6-4 and win a championship. You don't have to be 11-0. Our goal is to be .500 by mid-season. So if we're 0-2, don't lose the faith. By the time mid-season comes around, that's when we'll be hitting our stride.
"Am I a fool?" Mahoney asks as the kids begin standing. "Yes. I took this job. So am I a fool? That's what your parents are saying."
But, he concludes, "I believe in you guys. Let's go."
In the parking lot, the mood is less optimistic. "Saturday is going to be a disaster," predicts one parent.
Practice starts under a sky threatening rain.
If Monday was bad, Tuesday is apocalyptic. Roche's departure sprang a leak that's become a flood. Within 24 hours, fourteen players -- including the entire first team -- have quit. Mahoney receives a voice message from someone he doesn't know instructing him that the film-study session has been canceled.
At an emergency board meeting that evening, league administrators realize they must make a choice: Either the Evergreen Cougars dissolve, or Mahoney disappears.
Their decision is revealed the next day. On Wednesday afternoon, Mahoney gets a call from a league administrator who tells him the procedure for returning his equipment. The caller is embarrassed to discover that Mahoney doesn't know what he's talking about.
Mahoney says no one from the team contacted him to officially deliver the bad news. But the now-former coach pieces together what happened. "They just freaked out and shot me in the back," he says. "I have coached thousands of kids over twenty years, and never have I dealt with such an ugly bunch in my life.
"Everybody has their ups and downs. These people just can't deal with the downs. When you put together a team and win thirty games in a row, you create monsters. I'm building these kids up at practice, and their parents are tearing them down at dinner."
Over the past six months, Mahoney says, he's put in between a dozen and thirty hours a week preparing to coach the thirteen-year-old boys from Evergreen -- only to have the team yanked away from him in secret. "There's nothing anybody can say to me -- an apology or an explanation -- that I will accept," he fumes.
Rebecca Schloegl, the team mom and league president, regrets what's happened. Mahoney simply lost the confidence of too many parents to stay on the job, she says. With the team so obviously vulnerable, parents had begun to worry about their children's welfare. "The Cougars' opponents scored an average of 5.5 points on them over the last three years," she says. "Now these people are wanting to put a hundred points on the board against this team. They won't stop."
She adds that to many parents, the season looked lost before it started. The consensus was that Mahoney had never spent enough time teaching the players fundamental skills such as blocking and tackling. "All he's done is half-speed walking drills," Schloegl says.
On Wednesday night, while a practice is hastily thrown together, parents meet at a nearby rec center. The meeting is bitter, and Division II parents accuse Division I parents of orchestrating a coup. Still, by the end they've reached an uneasy truce, and they agree to give a new coach a chance. "We're hanging by a thread," Schloegl says. "I don't know if we can keep it together."
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The following day, the team's Web site notes some changes. Saturday's game against the Gators has been postponed until September 17, it advises. The first game, against Highlands Ranch, is now scheduled for September 6.
Mahoney's name is gone from the site. After the title of head coach is the name of James Clark, who, as coach of the Evergreen Cougars' team of ten-year-olds, has compiled a 27-3 record over the past three years.
"Team unity is expected of all players and coaches," the site concludes.