The Good in the Game
READFIELD, Maine — In the middle of nowhere, that’s where I find myself in pursuit of a football story that has nothing to do with domestic violence, child abuse, improper benefits, alleged criminal acts or hazing scandals. After crossing the New Hampshire-Maine border and putting 109 miles of Interstate 95 behind me, I finally exit and head west on State Road 17, a rolling two-lane highway covered in red and yellow leaves. In the distance, the Presidential Range presents a stunning backdrop on this clear and crisp autumn day. There are a couple of pass-through towns that aren’t even of the one-stoplight variety: a blinking light is all that’s needed as I zip past corn fields and apple orchards in rustic New England. And then out of nowhere it hits you, an oasis of higher education that first opened its doors in 1824.
Kents Hill School looks like Hollywood’s version of a prep school. The boys and girls dorms are on opposite ends of sloping hills, and athletic fields—including the largest artificial turf expanse in New England—stretch as far as the eye can see. The Alfond Athletics Center houses a hockey rink, a basketball arena, two tennis courts and nine locker rooms. There’s also a skiing area, complete with a lodge. Nearly the entire faculty lives in apartments attached to the dorms, and it’s rare for spouses to be employed off campus. Everyone eats in the dining hall, especially on Thursday nights during family-style dinners. Kents Hill School isn’t a utopian experience—it is its own utopia.
It’s easy to forget the outside world exists, or that football is under attack from seemingly all angles. Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Jonathan Dwyer, Ray McDonald and Adrian Peterson all made stomach-churning headlines for the NFL. Jameis Winston and Todd Gurley have dominated college football news for the wrong reasons. High school football teams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had their seasons cancelled amid hazing scandals. Three high school players, from Alabama, North Carolina and New York, died within a week of one other in early October. The specter of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy hangs over the game at all levels. It’s easy to see why people are beginning to wonder if it’s worth their time, money and health. Football is becoming a dirty word.
Football is becoming a dirty word. But at Kents Hill School, it’s as pure as it can be.
But at Kents Hill, where the game has been played since 1893, football is as pure as it can be. On Saturday the Huskies will play in-state foe Hebron Academy for the 121st time, one of the longest-running rivalries in the country. Kents Hill hasn’t won a game this season, but the seven losses haven’t sapped the joy from the 26 players on the roster. A majority play both ways, and most who go on to the next level will play either in the Ivy League or at small New England colleges such as nearby Bowdoin, Bates and Colby. This isn’t some sort of feeder program for the SEC or Big Ten. They don’t dream of the NFL here. Football is a pastime that fits around a rigorous academic program, but the sport’s impact has been immeasurable.
Kents Hill’s four captains are from four different countries. Each speaks a different native language. Sit and talk to them, however, and a common thread emerges: Sebastian Falck-Stigsby from Denmark … Raphael Major-Dagenais from Canada … Han Zhang from China … and Walter Washington from the U.S. … these young men all passionately describe how they couldn’t imagine being where they are in life without football. Then walk off the practice field with Lily McCutcheon, the team’s lone female, and listen to this accomplished ice hockey player explain how she couldn’t take being called for physical fouls in field hockey anymore. So she picked up a helmet this fall and became anything but a novelty on the team. “At first it was kind of a dare to play football,” she says, “and people were like, ‘Girls can't play football.’ And I was like, 'Watch me.’ ”
There is no masking football’s reality: it is a violent game with inherent risks. But to those who play it, coach it, watch it, love it, doesn’t the game deserve better than to be viewed as something more than a mere lightning rod for controversy? At Kents Hill and many other places like it, football remains a pillar of community, a tie that binds.
* * *
There are 240 students from 18 countries at Kents Hill, and the football team alone has nine foreign students from China, Denmark, Germany, Canada, Sweden and England. The campus is more than 200 miles from the nearest NFL stadium, but the game’s reach becomes apparent through the experiences of the four captains.
Walter Washington, a 6-foot, 255-pound guard and defensive end, had the typical American experience growing up a half-hour’s drive north of New York City. The son of a teacher and a Coca-Cola salesman, he landed at Kents Hill for a postgrad year, hoping to raise his college profile. What he loves most about the sport is how the success or failure of a play depends on all 11 players and the bonds that are formed. “You’re with each other, you learn how to endure pain together, you learn to grow together,” he says. “Coaches constantly compare football to life, and in life you're going to mess up. And I don't think it’s necessarily about how bad you fail. It's really more about how you fix it, how you change from your mistakes and learn to be better.”
From Quebec, Raphael Major-Dagenais started attending Montreal Alouettes games at age 5. Well before he became a 5’ 10”, 180-pound playmaker at receiver, running back and defensive back, “Raff” drew penalties in youth league games in which players wore pads but had to pull flags without making contact. “Me and my best friend, we'd just tackle people,” Raff, a senior, says in a thick French-Canadian accent. “But you learn on the field how to act, you learn to control yourself. Sometimes you get a cheap shot on the field and you can't reply. You have to let it go.”
I’ve always wondered: Is football really any different than what other sports have to offer? Reporting this story made me reflect on my own relationship with the game.
Denmark has a fledgling tackle football program, the Danish American Football Federation, but Sebastian Falck-Stigsby acquired most of his football knowledge playing Madden. When he was about 14, a friend invited him to tag along to practice one day. At the time, “Seb” was short and skinny, so he was put at cornerback. He returned an interception that day for a touchdown. “I was like, Alright, I can probably see myself doing this,” he says. A recruited postgraduate player, Seb has grown into a 6-3, 240-pound tackle who plays both ways and has been on the Danish national team for two years.
Football was a lifeline for Seb, who had been beaten up by gang members seeking to initiate him. The incident brought on depression and caused him to retreat into his room. His grades dropped. Anger issues developed. The tall and lanky kid grew his hair out and spent his free time playing video games. “I just wasn’t doing very well,” he says. “After I started playing football, things turned around. It gave me an outlet by letting me be somebody else. Off the field I'm very mellow. I don't think people expect me to play football. But I love it. It gives me an outlet to be someone completely else. I couldn’t see myself without football.”
Han Zhang, a senior, first learned about football by watching a Chinese television program that showed players piling on each other to recover a loose ball. “My impression was violence,” he says. “That’s for violent people.” Zhang had cousins and siblings who attended college in the U.S., and they all told him the same thing: Go there for high school to acclimate to the language and the culture.
At 13, Zhang went from living in a city of eight million to being dropped off in a town of fewer than 3,000. His father, a factory owner, sobbed during goodbyes. Yet Han didn’t flinch. He has the air of someone who knows exactly what he wants. Upon arriving at Kents Hill, one of the first things he did was join the football team. “I really liked the sport before I came here,” Han says. “I thought that's the sport a man should play.”
“I literally didn’t know anything about the game,” he says. Han had never been on a football field, nor did he know what the helmet and shoulder pads were used for. Same for those weird metal structures on both ends of the field. But learning the game wasn’t the hardest adjustment. “I got so much criticism on the field because my English was so bad,” he says. “For myself, I don't like to take criticism. I want to prove myself. I can do that. I can do better.”
Han, who has grown into a rock-solid 5-11, 210-pound guard and defensive end, knows most of the rules now. Last season when he touched a live punt, causing a turnover, he responded by knocking on the head coach’s home door and asking to be taught every special teams rule. Han is taking several AP classes, including humanities, which are infinitely harder for foreign students because of language differences.
Before his first game as a captain this season, Han wanted to give a speech to his teammates. So he did what he always does—he meticulously thought out and practiced what he wanted to say. He rehearsed for hours. When everyone gathered in the locker room the next day, he delivered words that teammates still recite to this day: “You can’t think about homework! You can’t think about girlfriend! You think about football! You think about football!”
Three years ago his English was barely understandable. Now teammates laugh with him. The source of his growth: football.
“I can't imagine that I would have so much confidence to make more friends, to do different things without it,” Han says. “That kind of courage and confidence pushes me to try new things and makes my life more unique and special than my other Chinese friends. I can't imagine my life without football that much. I’m happy in this place.”
* * *
It was still dark when Kents Hill boarded a bus at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4. The Huskies traveled for five hours through four states to play Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. After losing, 42-21, they hopped back on the bus, making only a brief stop at a Chipotle before returning to campus at 10:30 p.m. This trip alone accounted for 462 of the 1,613 miles the team traveled to four away games this season.
In the not-so-distant past, before smartphones became ubiquitous, teammates only had each other to entertain themselves on road trips. Someone might have brought a stereo, leading to a few sing- or rap-a-longs, but most of the time was spent ribbing each other. Bonds were built by laying bare each other’s weaknesses. On this morning, the conversation was at a minimum. Some players dozed, their heads bouncing against the bus windows, while others wore headphones and got lost in their own music.
The access to technology keeps the players tapped into the NFL. Raff goes out of his way to watch every Thursday, Sunday and Monday. Same with Walter, though he says “it’s kind of difficult because my parents are so serious about me being in church on Sundays—but I have alerts on my phone and I’m constantly checking it.” Of the black cloud hovering over professional football, Seb says, “I think all the negativity is justified. Just because you make millions of dollars playing football does not mean you’re exempt from the law … I’d like for the NFL to be more publicly aware of such cases and deal with them better, but it does not affect the way I love this sport.”
Unlike his teammates, Seb consumes the NFL differently. He was never able to watch games in Denmark because of time-zone differences. “I don’t find it very entertaining to watch the games, except for the bigger ones,” he says, meaning the Super Bowl. “I find myself looking up highlights of players instead on YouTube. It filters out all the ‘trash’ plays and you only get the sweet nectar of the game.”
Just before halftime in Rhode Island, Kents Hill got a taste of that sweet nectar. Head coach Steve Shukie took his last timeout with 7.2 seconds left and sent in a trick play the team had worked on in practice the day before. Quarterback Noah Henson pretended to be busy calling out a signal as the snap went to running back Adam Gigliotii, who handed the ball to Raff on a sweep. But this was no running play. Raff threw it to the quarterback, who made a diving catch in the end zone as time expired.
The Huskies charged into the locker room on a high, but Portsmouth Abbey scored 28 straight points in the second half. Kents Hill squandered its third straight halftime lead and lost its fourth straight to open the season. Everyone struggled. Han didn’t stay in his gap a few times. Walter missed a few tackles. Seb felt responsible, because everything had been going fine defensively until he suffered a concussion upon taking a teammate’s knee to the head in the second quarter.
“Losses are going to happen, bad plays are going to happen. But that's football,” Walter said in the locker room afterward. “You have to learn how to handle adversity. When it happens you can't give up on the season because there are more games to play.”
Lily McCutcheon, a freshman, didn’t make her debut until the following week, against Pingree School in South Hamilton, Mass. But she’d already earned the respect of her teammates. The Oklahoma drill is time-honored if brutal. There are various versions of it, but the most common pits a ball carrier one-on-one against a tackler. The rest of the team forms a circle around the two combatants, hooting and hollering at the popping of pads. The ponytail bouncing behind Lily’s helmet belies her aggressiveness, to say nothing of the crushes some teammates have. In early October she walloped a ballcarrier so hard it’s been the talk of the team since.
“She laid him out,” Washington says. “You didn't expect that. You saw what she could do and you're like, Wow!”
When asked about it, McCutcheon’s eyes light up.
“It was so fun,” she says. “I love hitting people.”
* * *
Negative headlines about NFL players’ misdeeds off the field have been impossible to miss, but the image battle isn’t the only threat to the game. Are high schools and colleges at cross-purposes in promoting higher education while backing such a violent sport? Would you let your son or daughter play football? More and more, these questions are being asked throughout the country. Because no matter how extensive the concussion protocols are, no matter what steps are taken to make football safer, it’s virtually impossible to legislate violence out of the game’s DNA. So it boils down to a deeply personal view: Do the rewards outweigh the risks?
I put that question to Patrick McInerney, the headmaster at Kents Hill. “Football has had its ups and downs, but it’s always been a strong part of the history of the school, and I’m sure it will continue to be,” he says. “Football is a very complicated sport, with all kinds of schemes and strategies, more so than some of the other sports. I think there’s a lot to learn intellectually from football. In other sports, like hockey, there’s only so much you can do. In football, it’s a real education.”
The son of a football coach, Shukie played in high school and at Johns Hopkins for two seasons before injuries ended his career. He became an assistant coach while still in school, then went on to coach at Kings College in the MAC and at Division III Bowdoin, where he spent seven seasons before taking the Kents Hill job last year. Instead of trying to move up the college ladder, he wanted to settle down for a less nomadic lifestyle.
A simple, soft-spoken man when he’s not trying to light a fire under his players, Shukie, 31, was the subject of a feature article written by Walter Washington in the student newspaper in early October. The guard/end described his coach as “the Bill Belichick of Husky football. Stoic, monotone, one-worded answers, no emotion shown on his face.” Shukie teaches social studies, helps coach baseball in the spring and loves playing fetch with his Goldendoodle, Lucy. He usually does so by hitting fungoes to her on a large field in front of the athletics center before dinner. Life is good. He lives rent-free in a quaint three-bedroom apartment with his wife, Molly, an attorney who practices family law, and his seven-month-old son, Jack.
Will Jack play football someday? I wasn’t the only one who asked Shukie that question. Walter did, too.
“I’m up for letting him do anything he’s really interested in, if he wants to go out and take dance classes then that’s fine,” the coach told his player. Shukie also told me it will be his son’s decision, but he’s not shy about extolling the virtues of his sport. “There is absolutely nothing that compares to winning a football game,” he says. “Coming together as a team, executing a plan, covering for a teammate who makes a mistake or gets injured, and winning—there is nothing like it.”
In the kitchen, his wife chuckles. Those who knew her in high school would have voted her Least Likely to Marry a Football Coach. “I mostly thought it was just a bunch of guys hitting each other,” she says, “and it seemed more violent than athletic.”
“Before I met Steve, if someone asked me if I would let my children play football, I would have said no,” says Molly, a former swimmer at Bates. “While I’d prefer that he take up swimming—a lifelong sport with very low risk of serious injury—I will support him playing football if that is what he wants to do. It turns out there’s more to the game than a bunch of guys lining up to hit each other. That may seem obvious, but that used to be my uneducated view of the game.”
Reporting this story made me reflect on my own relationship with football. I’ve always loved it because of the strategy involved, and I’ve always respected the people who do it for a living. It’s a hard life for everyone involved, except for NFL owners. I played only a bit growing up, but have been around the game enough—Pop Warner, high school, college and the pros—to know it very well and see the lessons it can teach.
But I’ve always wondered: Is it really any different from what other sports have to offer? Baseball teaches you to deal with failure, and there are trust lessons between a pitcher and catcher. I’m not sure there are better sports than soccer, basketball, swimming or cross-country at instilling mental toughness and pushing through exhaustion. You won’t find more disciplined or tougher athletes than on a wrestling mat, hockey rink or a lacrosse field. But after spending three days with the players at Kents Hill School, my mind is more open to the idea that football might stand above the rest.
Watching the players and coaches try to compensate for their various injuries, I discovered a new appreciation for the next-man-up philosophy we always hear about. It’s a bit overblown in the pros, but when you’re a student taking demanding classes, a student who just sat on a bus for five hours, a student playing both ways who has to fill in for a fallen teammate, well, it puts things in a different context than a pro simply doing what he’s paid very well to do.
And how can you not be impressed by the sport’s impact on a kid like Han, who hadn’t seen a football field before arriving from China but found confidence on it? Or Lily, who pushed herself into something new despite protests from her parents and friends—and made Han rethink his notion that it’s “a man’s game”? Or Seb, who didn’t want to come out of his room but now looks to be on his way to an Ivy League school? Maybe there is something extra special about a sport that can make a Canadian forget about hockey and lead to a New Yorker becoming best friends with a Dane.
Then again, maybe we just need to stop putting labels on everything and just let football be what it is. Yes, it’s a violent and possibly dangerous game. But it’s also sought out by boys and girls who are looking for something they can’t get elsewhere. That something is individual in nature, but it’s found in a communal experience. Football can be good. That much I saw at Kents Hill School, in the eyes and words of the students.
As I rode on the team bus after the Rhode Island game, I noticed a sign along I-95 bearing a state slogan as we crossed back into Maine: The Way Life Should Be. The more I think about it, isn’t this the way football should be?
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