GROVE CITY, Minn. – The high school football team crowded into a weight room heavy with sweat and machismo.
“Hugggh!” one player grunted as he lifted 225 pounds to blaring rock music. Another grimaced doing a pullup.
Soon afterward, they retreated to a classroom in their shorts and T-shirts to watch game film.
But before they could critique their last matchup, the coach had a surprise: an animated video with sweet, soft piano music urging the teenagers to show love and respect for their parents.
Players on the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City football team never know what’s coming when they check in for practice.
Starting last season, when David Blom took the helm as head coach, a few practice sessions have turned, well, unconventional.
This week, after the players watched the cartoon, Blom instructed each of them to take a few minutes to write a letter thanking their parents. Earlier this year, he made players perform in a video, lip syncing to a song about telling females that they are beautiful. Last year, team members role-played a dramatic scene after a hypothetical drunken-driving crash.
Blom, a 31-year-old former standout athlete from Cosmos, said he was inspired by his own high school track coach to be a mentor beyond the sport. “When the season was over, he still participated and was involved in my life as a high schooler,” Blom said. “I felt like I was obligated to live up to his standards. Therefore, I kept my nose clean.”
Now that Blom is a head coach, a husband and a father of four, he said he wanted to try to “think outside the box a little bit” to impart life lessons beyond the game. Blom is not a teacher — he has a day job as a program coordinator for adult foster care — and has dreamed up the unusual lessons on his own.
Standing before the group, his head shaved bald and his leg tattooed, Blom threw out a question: “Who’s told your mom or dad that you love them within the last 24 hours?” he asked after the video had ended.
A few of the players shyly raised their hands.
“How about the last week?”
A few more players slid their hands up as some chuckled, their faces turning red.
“Believe it or not, when I was in high school, we never used the word ‘love’ … it was just not comfortable. It’s such a strong word,” Blom told them.
But he didn’t want the players to go off to college or start their adult lives regretting that they didn’t express themselves, he said.
“We are going to give you the opportunity right now, because this week is parents’ week,” he said, encouraging them to spill their guts in private letters to their families.
“This is your opportunity … to thank Mom, to thank Dad, to show them how much you appreciate them, show them how much you love them. Most of you guys can’t do it in words verbally, so we’re going to put it on a piece of paper.”
The room grew quiet as each boy hunkered over a desk. Some filled a half page before stuffing the letters into an envelope and sealing them for their parents’ eyes only. Co-captain Beau Anderson filled an entire page, then turned it over to write more, pausing frequently to think.
Blom knows he sometimes makes his 41 players uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassed. But it’s important, he said, that they learn how to act respectfully even when it doesn’t seem cool.
‘The scariest thing’
Last year, in what several team members described as the lesson with the biggest impact on them, each player had to act in a mock courtroom scene, pretending that they had been drinking and driving and had killed the coach’s daughter in a car accident. They had to face an angry-looking coach Blom and read aloud their letters of apology.
“I had them come up to the podium in front of the other players,” Blom said. “They trembled when they were trying to read these statements that they wrote. … I knew by their emotions how seriously they were taking it.”
“That was probably the scariest thing in my life, honestly,” senior linebacker Walker Youngblom said. “We didn’t sign up for speeches or letters,” Youngblom said. But in the end, he conceded, “we know what we’re doing is good stuff. I don’t think about this stuff, usually.”
Lately, the football team has garnered a lot of attention for what many called the most embarrassing activity: lip syncing to the One Direction song, “What Makes You Beautiful.”
Being told they’re beautiful is a message that the coach said a lot of females don’t hear.
“At first we were like, ‘Is he really gonna make football players sing and dance?’” Anderson explained, shaking his head.
Blom’s response: “If we can embarrass ourselves for the fact that we’re making somebody’s day just a little bit better, then we’re doing our job.”
Blom asked the players to bring a photo of their moms to hold up during filming.
Blom appears in the video first, lip syncing the opening line: “You’re insecure. Don’t know what fo-o-or.”
The video was unveiled at homecoming coronation, and players said they were relieved at the community’s reaction.
“We were surprised how well-liked it was,” said co-captain Tanner Olson. “The whole crowd was laughing and really got into it.”
The clip has nearly 14,000 hits on YouTube.
“He’s right there doing everything with us, so I think that helps,” said co-captain Colton Minnick. It’s easier to participate in such antics with a coach on a team than it would be with classmates in school, he said. “We’re more of a family.”
Holding team accountable
With a varsity season record of 3-4, some critics might instruct coaches to focus more on the game.
Parent Heidi Anderson said she’s heard nothing negative from parents, though. She’s glad the coaches are teaching more than just football, she said.
“He makes them be accountable for their academics, how they’re representing themselves in school,” she said. “I have seen so many coaches who are just there to win games and to practice and run the drills and don’t really get to know their athletes … Winning a game is just a bonus. I think if these coaches can be better role models, they are mentors to these young boys and girls.”
It’s a mission that Superintendent Sherri Broderius said she hopes all coaches take to heart.
“Football is another avenue to teach kids,” she said. “Every opportunity should be a teachable moment.”