Photo by helmetaddict.com
So many high schools in America are facing helmet shortages. Some schools don't have the money to recondition their helmets legally. Four decades ago, one small town high school football coach started paying out of his pocket for teams he didn't even know or play against. All in the name of keeping a school football team alive, and giving young men a chance to succeed. Are we at that point now?
Bill Walsh once told high school football coach Jerry Daniel in the very early 80s that there was no such thing as an expert football coach. He was right. Bill then asked Jerry to talk to him about the bisect block. Incredibly unique conservation amongst two unique football coaches.
One is widely considered the greatest mind in pro football history. The other coached a small town team of 23 kids, went 1-9 that same season, and sent money from his own pocketbook to make sure disadvantaged high school football programs stay afloat. Schools that were not his.
Jerry had every donation written in a memo that said, “Anonymous. For purchase of football helmets only.”
That coach is my father.
When I become a young coach in the early 90s, my dad told me the same thing that Coach Walsh told him, there is no such thing as an expert in football. No one knows everything about the game. If that was the case, that guy would never lose. In my 48 years in this game, I still have never met an expert. And I have met a lot of great coaches.
But there was one thing that my dad was an expert at in the game of football. He was an expert in caring about the lives of young high school football players who needed football and love in many of their challenged lives. Those players mattered to him.
He was one of the best small school football coaches in southern California for nearly 20-plus years. I remember as a kid, before every one of his games, his players would jump up and down, chanting and yelling, “It just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.” I
didn't get it. He never told me what it meant until I started coaching.
What didn’t matter? Why would he have his players before every game, hopping around, yelling, “It just doesn’t matter”?
As I tell this short story about him, those chants will tell all of us about the game of football for disadvantaged players and their high school football programs. Many disadvantaged young players need the game of football in their lives.
I guess I had always viewed his teams as challenged, in a sense. Challenged in the way of tough lives, not having certain things that they should have. But I have ever known the man to miss the playoffs but one year, and that was the 1-9 season.
But maybe they weren't challenged. His varsity teams averaged about 25-30 players at most over the years. I just remember this high school and the players on my dad's team kicked the tar out of so many larger teams over the years.
In one championship game, my dad's team had to play at a rival stadium because their 'little old' stadium wouldn't hold the enormous crowd. My dad, the staff, and most players were not happy to play a home game in a rival stadium. That high school stadium was my high school.
Dad entered that game at 12-0. However, I remember when the game started, standing on the sidelines, the ‘pretty’ looking team on the other sidelines had maybe 75 players, large hand warmers, warm oversized rain jackets, and at that time, their water tanks had wheels. That was big time then. I think I even remember a couple of my dad's players in that game have different color helmets than the rest of their own team.
Three seconds left, 4th-and-23 from the 35, a hail-mary was caught. Game over. For the first time in my life, I saw my father lose his breath in emotion and disbelief for about 10 seconds. He then gathered himself, congratulated the other team, and then loved on his broken-hearted players.
I even quickly looked up into the stands to find my mother, who would normally bring a book to read during the games. She was the consummate coach’s wife, even though she didn’t have much of a clue about the game. But at this point, she had her hands over her mouth in disbelief with the rest of the coach’s wives. She knew what had happened.
I always remember that school and those players who played for my father, my Godfather who was the offensive coordinator, and the two other amazing coaches on that staff.
Those players at that high school were the toughest kids I had ever seen play football and in life. I am fortunate to be lifelong friends with a lot of those kids from those teams and that school today.
Now, of course, in the life of a football coach and player, this story is not a dynamic one. All of us in the game of football have endured something like that.
Like most all great coaches, every player mattered even more after a game like that.
That game stuck in my dad’s craw for the rest of his life.
And for the rest of his coaching career, what mattered were his players and how they were loved, cared for, and in a safe place. To protect and love them the best he possibly could, as one of their coaches, and as if they were his own kids.
Many of his players had very tough lives. While I went to that larger rival ‘bougie’ school across town from my father’s school, I remember coming home from school several times over the years and a family was living with us in our house for a brief time. The player’s family was either getting evicted, or the player had a gang threat on him and his family’s life.
Those things mattered to my mom and dad. But there was one thing that he did want his players to know: It did not matter what other people thought.
I remember him telling his players to remember that it does not matter what outside sources thought about them. It ‘just does not matter.’
Before their games, when they ran onto the field with only 25 players and the other team had 50; It just doesn't matter.
When the other team had pretty uniforms and some of my dad’s team had different color helmets; It just doesn’t matter.
Or the small, run-down, 60-year-old football stadium they played in; It just doesn’t matter.
It just doesn’t matter what other people think. The only thing that matters is who is in their living rooms, locker room, and on their own sidelines. They love and play for family and each other. That is the only thing that matters.
Before kickoff, “It just doesn’t matter.”
In 2009 my father passed away. A couple of months later, we went through his finances. We saw financial records written to various high school athletic programs in southern California. We had no idea he was doing this. My mother had no clue. But all the donations given were to schools in a comparable situation to dad's old program.
I investigated why those schools and where his interest lay in them. It turned out, every school was going to shut down its football program because they did not have the money to buy helmets or get their helmets reconditioned. This was before the internet and he was linked in to what was going on out there in the high school football world.
My father personally saved a half dozen needy H.S. football programs because they could not afford helmets.
Now we knew where that money went.
To know my father was to know not only one of the best small-school football coaches in the state of California, but one of the best football coaches of all time. At any level. An X’s and O’s run-game wizard, an offensive line technical guru.
A few months ago, I was contacted by an old colleague of mine in Pennsylvania and was wondering if I can help with his team get helmets. They are going to have to cut kids because they didn't have enough helmets. This is a school where a lot of these kids need football in their lives. This hit me directly and I am going to do something about it.
My father’s name is Jerry Daniel and we are creating an annual initiative to help low-income schools all over the country that cannot afford football helmets and/or the annual reconditioning of those helmets.
The mission is to keep schools from dropping the sport of football because they cannot get football helmets.
Jerry never sought any recognition for his support, and the man saved high school football programs from shutting down.
Today, there is a massive shortage of helmets for high school football programs across the country. While some schools fight for helmets, some schools are sporting chrome looking hats.
As I start to build this new initiative, it will be in my father’s name, Jerry Daniel Hats for Heads Matter.
As a coach, Jerry cared what his players thought and felt to be happy, safe and successful in life as a human, a son, a father and a grandfather. As their coach, his only priority was that they were allowed to participate, an opportunity to achieve, an opportunity to succeed, and for some, the first opportunity to be loved, cared for, and protected.
His desire to put hats on the heads of young men is not only a form of athletic protection, but it is a metaphorical form of love. A shield of protecting young men to whom he swore he would give his all as a coach, mentor, and, at times, a father figure.
Some players have never felt a model of protection at home, but only protection thru athletics. A family of teammates, brothers and ultimately being loved by their peers and protected by their coaches.
These schools, teams, and players will never know Jerry Daniel personally, but if this man were still alive today, he would do everything he could to continue to let them know that these teams and players matter. They have the right to achieve, succeed, and be protected.
We had his memorial service in the new stadium of the school he coached. The stadium was full. Filled with former players, coaches and rival coaches and two NFL coaching legends tucked away in the stands that night. There was a podium at the 50 yard line with the helmets of every team he coached. But there was one helmet placed out on the platform from a school we had no idea who it was. No one in the speaking party or the creators of the memorial had any idea. I didnt. It was just there.
This initiative is important. What matters is these players and schools get the helmets they need to play safely.
What doesn’t matter is what the outside world thinks when they get those hats on their heads as brothers.