Touchdowns, tackles and torture
By Greg Bach
When two South Florida moms signed their kids up for their first season of tackle football they were expecting a fun and learning-filled experience for them.
Instead, they were plunged into a nightmare.
Their 9-year-olds endured a punishing five-day-a-week practice schedule for six months; were verbally and physically abused by an out-of-control coach; and then rarely saw the field on Saturday game days.
The horrific details of their season are chronicled in Touchdowns, Tackles, and Torture: Life of a Youth Football Mom, written by Stacey Vidal and Julie Hernandez. It’s a shocking, page-turning and fascinating behind-the-scenes look that captures everything that’s wrong with youth sports.
“It was horrible sitting there on the sidelines and listening to the coaches yell at the children, berate the children, call the children names and curse at them,” says Hernandez. “It was very difficult. There were so many times I just wanted to run out there and grab my son and just leave forever.”
Hernandez, a dental hygienist, and Vidal, a third grade teacher, met during the team’s first practice of the season and quickly forged a friendship that culminated with writing a book together. Hernandez was there with her son Jeremy and Vidal with her son Paul.
“It was really hard to watch,” Vidal says of that season. “I’m a teacher and to see the coaches screaming at the kids like that I just didn’t get it. I feel like they were tortured out there sometimes.”
The following is our conversation with the authors:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why did you two decide to write a book about your experience?
STACEY: We sat there night after night watching all of this going on so just out of frustration of what we were seeing that was so insane we thought we should write about it.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: In the book you detail that the coaches called your sons fat ass, retard, lazy and stupid. How difficult was that to listen to?
JULIE: It’s kind of intimidating. You have four or five coaches out there, and they’re all men, and you have a whole group of dads standing, watching and also yelling. As mothers we just sat there and it was very difficult to hear. I didn’t know what to say. The coaches wanted to win so they did whatever it took to win is what I think basically happened that season. When they should have been coaching and building morale and uplifting the kids it was the opposite.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: The team practiced every night for at least two hours for three months before the first game was even played, and then continued that practice schedule for another three months with games on Saturdays. How hard was that on the kids, and your families?
STACEY: It was exhausting. You go to work, rush home and do homework, and shove something in their mouth for dinner because you had to be on the field by 6 p.m. We would get home at 9, and fall into bed exhausted at 10, and wake up and do it all over again. It was draining every single day.
JULIE: It was very difficult. We would pick him up from school, rush home and have something to eat quickly and get to the fields because if you were late getting there the kids were penalized and had to run laps around the field. Jeremy couldn’t commit to anything else. There was no hanging out with friends during the week after school or playing any instrument or anything like that. It was just football all those months.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Besides being verbally abused how disappointing was it to see the coaches basically ignore your sons during practice and not provide them with coaching?
JULIE: Coming from flag football Jeremy was always out there playing with his team and I had no clue that this is what goes on in tackle. It was shocking, and what was really disheartening was they weren’t being coached. He was the new kid on the team and this was his first season and the coaches with the kids that had played the season before were coaching them and getting them ready and going through the plays where Jeremy and Paul were just standing on the sidelines not even being coached, not even being taught. That was a huge disappointment because that was the reason we were there – Jeremy wanted to play and be coached and they didn’t give the time that was necessary to the new kids to at least give them the opportunity to be coached.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How intimidating was the coach, who you describe in the book as about 6-foot-2 with a beer belly and a perpetually miserable look on his face?
STACEY: Everyone would say that he shouldn’t be saying the things he was saying but nobody would say anything to him, even the other coaches. They were all scared of him; nobody wanted to say anything, nobody wanted to cause problems. I’m sure because they didn’t want it taken out on their kids either. In a way of course I wish I had spoken up and stood up to him but I was scared. I was intimidated.
JULIE: There were a lot of parents that had problems with this coach. You see this type of behavior in the NFL but those are adults. These are children in an Optimist football league. You don’t talk to children like that. I don’t care what sport you are playing or what you are doing or what you are trying to teach them. You have to teach and you have to teach with encouragement. It was abusive. They were verbally abused and it was hard to listen to.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Even some of the parents of the other kids you describe in the book are out of control, even bringing alcohol to the field.
STACEY: Everybody was trying to coach from the sidelines. It’s not just the coaches who are so intense, the parents get crazy too. Even the parents would fight.
JULIE: I think crazy parents are everywhere. The parents push and push and drive their kids. Parents would come to the field with their alcohol and their crazy attitudes and the nonsense. All we could do was sit back and just observe and write about it because it was too much to even get involved in. It was a crazy time.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: On a positive note, despite all the abuse your kids never quit, they shed more than 50 pounds combined which they were looking to do to get in shape, and incredibly they still enjoy playing the game and participating in other sports.
JULIE: The boys are survivors and they did a great job. They worked hard and they did not quit. We talked about switching cities, but it’s the same everywhere. We felt like wherever you go there’s always going to be a bad coach and there’s always going to be a crazy parent or whatever the case may be. So switching cities wasn’t the answer. I think Jeremy felt like he was already committed so he wanted to be a part of a team and stick it out.
STACEY: I would ask Paul about what the coach said to them all the time and he’d tell me, “It’s just football talk Mom. It doesn’t mean anything.” How he didn’t have a huge self-confidence issue I don’t know, but he just let it all slide. They screamed at so many kids that after awhile kids just don’t hear it anymore. When they yell like that they just kind of tune you out.
Part Two of our conversation with Lisa Yue, Founding Executive Director of the Children’s Cardiomyopathy Foundation
Dr. Kristine Keane, co-author of the new book Be All In: Raising Kids for Success in Sports and Life, shares all-important insight on concussions, specialization, and more
Lauren Johnson, Mental Conditioning Coordinator for the New York Yankees, on helping young athletes thrive amid the stress and struggles that accompany competing in sports
Soccer great Christie Pearce Rampone, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, two-time World Cup Champion and co-author of Be All In, on helping parents raise their young athletes for success on and off the field