The Player Coach

As if it were yesterday, I remember the moment I “retired” from organized football. Never a sports star, I had, however, been the starting tight end on my high school team. When applying to colleges, a couple of the college coaches took notice. One coach called several times in as many days to persuade me to commit to his school as my first choice. The admissions process at that school turned out to be even more competitive than expected. The admissions committee overlooked the coach’s recommendation and passed on my application.

The coach at the college to which I committed sent out a form letter that August. The letter was blunt, stating that camp started on such-and-such a date later that month and that all players were to be there on time and ready to compete for a spot on the team roster. As a harbinger of a future in finance, my thoughts instead turned to the number of working hours I would need to forgo flipping burgers at the beach in order to make camp on time. My father, a writer unpublished until his seventies, ran a small business out of the home. My mother was a clerk with the phone company. They had divorced when I was ten. There were four older siblings and two younger. Money was always tight, and every dollar I earned flipping those patties at Jones Beach would go toward books, and other college-related expenses. I had done well, graduating fifteenth out of four hundred eighty, while playing two sports, so the college discounted a significant portion of the tuition via financial aid, and I had applied for the maximum amount of student loans.

I could not get past the feeling that college football would be a job – in addition to the part-time job I would need to work during the school year. The savings from flipping those burgers was not going to be enough. I threw out the letter from the coach, worked until the Friday before the first day of school, and never looked back. The team did more than fine without me, vying for or winning the national championship several times in the coming years.

Later that first fall I had a sobering conversation with the college financial aid director. As it turns out, despite the schools’ division (the sports bracket in which, as I understood it, the school was not to award football scholarships), my admission was, so it would seem, predicated on my playing ball. No one had said a word about this condition of my college admission but the financial aid director made it clear enough when it became clear to him that I was not playing. The four years that followed at times seemed endless.

The Rugby Pitch

The rugby team at college was a club sport, run by students, rather than a collegiate sport managed by the school and overseen by the NCAA. The informality of the organization, the fluidity of the game as it sprawled out on the commons, and the friendliness of the players drew me in. The key factor was, however, that in rugby the coach was also a player. In college, the player-coach was a fellow student. At the club level, which I would try without success years later, the coach was still a player. He was in the trenches with the team, slogging out both wins and losses.

In rugby as in football, I continued to demonstrate why I was not a sports star. My hands were stiff and the top player in my position – “Second Row” – had great ball-handling skills. Years of weight lifting had made me stronger than the better ball-handler, and the player-coach would make good use of that advantage when the time was right. In the spring of my senior year, the regional rugby tournament took place in town, giving us “home field advantage.” It rained on the scheduled weekend, as it often does in that region in spring. The starting Second Row was injured. As fortune would have it, I ended up the A-side Second Row in the tournament.

I played each match that Saturday and Sunday afternoon after delivering the New York Times to a hundred or more classmates each morning. Being that ours was a residential college, the students lived in multi-story dormitories on campus. As a result, delivering the papers meant stomping through the mud on days like the one in this recollection and then climbing the stairs of each building in order to drop the paper at the students’ dorm-room doors. On Sundays, I found inspiration under the weight of the weekend edition by recounting lines from freshman English class. In that course, we studied Plato and Woolf. In hindsight, Seneca might have been more apropos.

“Through being challenged virtue becomes greatly strengthened.”[1]

The rain eased but continued throughout the match, all but eliminating any ball-handling-skill advantages. The match instead hinged on the balance of power in the trenches, known in rugby as “the scrum.” Each side was strong, but as the match ground on, it became more and more a “battle of wills.” I remember as if it were yesterday the final drive of the final match, the feel of the pitch under my feet as I straighten my back, drive with my legs and act out my best modern-day Archimedes. It replays in my mind in slow motion, as the player-coach at the “Number Eight” position steers the scrum by degrees, like a battleship, our legs providing the propulsion. There is something timeless about engaging arm-in-arm in organized sport in which equal but opposing forces act until the “weak link in the chain” on one side gives way.

After the match, the player-coach would turn to me in a voice just loud enough for me to hear above the clamor of the beer hall and say, “Given the weather conditions today, we may very well have been better.” He did not elaborate further – better than the opposing team, or better than an alternative team we might have fielded that day – as no explanation was needed. I may never have been a sports star, but that day, with the rain-soaked soil caked on my cleats, I earned my keep on that team, and for that fleeting moment, I like to think I made the team a better one.

Better, perhaps, than we might have been under a sun-soaked spring sky. Better than the opposing team in that final match, and as fortune would have it, better enough to win the tournament.

After delivering the Sunday papers, finishing the tournament and celebrating the win, I stomped through the mud back to my shared apartment and tapped out an article about the tournament for the school paper on the typewriter an older sibling had handed down to me as a high school graduation gift.

I made a commitment to myself that night before washing off the mud and collapsing. I would not “talk the talk,” without also “walking the walk.” One need not be a sports star in order to make effective use of the player-coach model as an approach to work and life.

Play Ball

Find someone you trust to be your financial player-coach. The greatest value in doing so may be in how he or she steers you, little by little, toward a financial position that is, for lack of a better word, better.


[1] Seneca, Epistles as cited in the essay “Of Cruelty,” by Michel de Montaigne, Charles Cotton-W. Hazlitt Translation, Edited by Blanchard Bates of Princeton University, Random House, New York, 1949.

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