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When the Coach Stands Tall: A Personal Remembrance of Bob Ladouceur



Mark Stricherz - published on 09/02/14

It was not his thing to take ethical shortcuts. Transforming the lives of young men was.

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In the spring of 1988, I took a religion class from Bob Ladouceur, the coach-hero of the new high-school football film “When the Game Stands Tall.” It was my junior year at De La Salle. This was long before “The Streak,” the 151 straight games that the team at our all-boys Christian Brothers school won from 1992 to 2004. So I wasn’t thinking about national acclaim and glory when I went to class. I was thinking about our star football player, whose exploits were notorious already in our upper-middle-class suburb of Walnut Creek, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Would he be permitted to play in the fall for his senior year?

Being young and naïve, I didn’t think he would. The team had a strict policy of no drinking during the season. This rule may sound ridiculous, but the star player was a party animal, perhaps even an alcoholic. (For the purposes of this story, I will call him Grappolo). The rumor was Grappolo bought so much booze from one liquor store in Concord the manager named him the “Buyer of the Month.” He was 16 or 17 years old. I can confirm Grappolo liked to throw alcohol-filled parties when his parents went away; I went to one party where the beer kegs were placed on a patio next to a swimming pool. Grappolo was not always a happy drunk either. He did not mind nearly coming to blows with a husky, muscular kid one day in class; he had a reputation as far back as middle school that he enjoyed using his fists to beat up kids. (Contrary to the notion that decadence begets effeteness, Grappolo was both a roué and a brawler). What would “Lad,” the name everybody used to refer to the coach, do to keep Grappolo in check? Would he kick him off the team?

Grappolo ended up playing his senior year, in the fall of 1988. He was the star of the defense for a team that went undefeated and won another sectional title. In fact, a major Bay Area newspaper named Grappolo the Northern California High-School Prep Football Player of the Year over two players who went on to play in the NFL. I never found out if Ladouceur looked the other way about Grappolo’s drinking or convinced him to stop hitting the bottle for the good of himself and the team; a belated attempt to contact this player indirectly yielded no response.

Is it conceivable Ladouceur let his star player’s drinking slide in the interest of winning another championship? Ladouceur has said his job as a high-school football coach was not that of saving souls, and the movie reflects the toll his commitment to his job had on his family life. But taking conscious ethical shortcuts was not Ladouceur’s thing. Transforming the lives of young men was. 

How Ladouceur worked the miracle in Grappolo’s case is difficult to say. Some sports observers argued that De La Salle cheated by using a summer camp to lure talented kids from heavily black areas like Richmond and Pittsburg, Calif., to enroll in the school. But De La Salle is the only Catholic high school in the East Bay which makes it easier to draw kids from outside areas, and anyway, the number of players on the team from heavily-minority communities has not been more than a handful. 

Here is my guess as to the reason for Ladouceur’s success with Grappolo: Ladouceur did what he always did—he acted like an American Catholic version of the successful CEOs portrayed in the best-selling book “Good to Great.” Remember that 2001 book? According to author Jim Collins, the CEOs of top-performing companies like Wells Fargo and Walgreens were not charismatic visionaries or empathetic team builders. They were methodical and dogged executives. They were persistent, detail-oriented, thoughtful, thorough, and analytical. I think those qualities describe Ladouceur except for one thing: He marshaled faith rather than the lure of wealth or the threat of being fired to build solidarity among those he led.

Ladouceur was nothing if not stolid—calm, dependable, unemotional. In class, he was quiet and reserved. Like Humphrey Bogart or Steven McQueen’s film characters, he was more committed to deeds than words. On the sidelines at football games, he did not rant or rave; the most he did was raise his voice. Ladouceur’s demeanor struck many as the antithesis of a head football coach. In his mostly positive review of the movie, San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub said “(o)utside of humans invaded by body snatchers and presidents whose nations are threatened by an asteroid, has there been a more stoic big screen performance than Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur in ‘When the Game Stands Tall?’" In truth, Caviezel got Ladouceur right.

What outsiders saw as plodding, stoic-like behavior Ladouceur’s players and he saw as humility. Ladouceur took the spotlight off him and put it on the team. Players knew coach wasn’t looking to leverage the team’s success to a more prestigious, higher-paying job. In an interview with sportswriter Neil Hayes, the author of “When the Game Stands Tall,” Ladouceur explained his approach this way:

Kids respect true humility and that you stand for something more than winning … They will fight for you and your program if you stand for more than that. It boils down to what you believe in as a person, and I’m talking about how life should be lived and people should be treated. Kids see all that. It’s a whole package of things that have nothing to do with standing in front of a team with a piece of chalk. You can know who to block and what play to call, but it has no meaning unless the kids know who you are. Our kids aren’t fighting for wins. They’re fighting for a belief in what we stand for.

Ladouceur’s quote begs the question: what did players think the team stood for? I don’t think it is a stretch to say they played for brotherhood, solidarity, mutual respect and love. As the movie shows, before each game the team’s players enter the stadium two by two, holding hands.  And players prayed, read Scripture, and talked about their hopes and fears at a weekly chapel service on campus. I don’t recall the players in my era following either custom, but the traditions helped inculcate a collective feeling of solidarity.

Belief can only take people so far, of course. It’s one thing to think something, another to do it. De La Salle players worked and worked. In the spring, you could see them doing intervals around the track at our stadium or lifting weights inside a weight room that was the size of three large closets. At the time, this off-season dedication at the high-school level was revolutionary. Now, as multiple media outlets have reported, it is increasingly common. 

One effect of the conditioning program was to make our players quicker off the ball than those at any other high school. Caviezel himself remarked upon this. As the brother-in-law of an NFL coach, Caviezel said he had never seen a team so quick after the snap.

Another effect was our teams wore down the opposition in the second half. Good teams could compete with us for a half but were gassed after the first half hour.

Humility, solidarity, hard work—the three qualities helped make Ladouceur the winningest high-school football coach in California history. But there was another ingredient too: faith. As Ladoucer told Hayes, the Catholic faith of Ladouceur and his assistants was indispensable.

When does faith and anything not come together? I mean, you carry your faith everywhere, and you can’t take it off like your shirt or anything like that. It’s a part of you. So, [Assistant Coach] Terry [
Eidson] and I have always believed that wherever we’re going or whatever we do, we carry our faith with us and try to act from that as best we can, our faith beliefs. Football is no different. People look at it and say, "Hey, that’s an anomaly or that’s strange." I’ve never thought about it that way and I don’t think Terry ever did either. 
De La Salle’s motto, which appears on the school crest, is "Les Hommes De Foi"

"Men Of Faith."

I remember Ladouceur said two of his heroes growing up were Cesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy, two men who, while they may have fallen short as Catholics, took their bearings from the Church. One can only wonder if more Catholic public and religious officials followed the lead of men like Coach Lad. They only have miracles to lose.

Mark Stricherz is based in Washington. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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