I chose Matt Labrum as my very important person this week because he dared to plant his flag and make his stand. Labrum is a football coach at Union High School located in Roosevelt, Duchesne County, Utah; he believes it is more important to build character in the young men on his team than winning games. When Coach Labrum and his staff learned that some of their players were behaving badly off the football field, they decided to do something about the bad behavior, which ranged from skipping classes to disrespecting adults to cyber bullying. If the coaches had known exactly which boys were doing what, they might have taken different actions. The coach and his staff made their plans and took the matter to the school administrators, who could have ended the plans at that point.
Principle Rick Nielsen, whose son played on the team, had “100 percent confidence in our (coaching) staff. They are just excellent men. Sometimes we do think we’re bigger than the game.”
Coach Labrum, his staff, and the principle made the decision to put the young men before the game of football. The coach is a former player on the Union High School football team and has coached at the school for the last two seasons. “We felt like everything was going in a direction that we didn’t want our young men going. We felt like we needed to make a stand.”
The coaches just wanted to do the right thing for their players and thought they would have the support of most of their community of 6,100 people. They have been shocked and overwhelmed by the media attention and national interest in their decision to put the boys before football. Even though they did not seek media exposure, they are using it too as a teaching tool. Coach Labrum said, “It’s wonderful to see so many people being so supportive of us. We’re isolated out here. This is all new. We didn’t want the media exposure to make us lose sight of why we were doing this.”
The teaching started at the end of a Friday night football game when the players learned that they were suspended from the team and required to earn the privilege to play. The next morning at 7:00, the coaches gave each boy a two-page letter outlining the requirements to earn back their jerseys and the right to play in the homecoming game that week. Page 1 of the letter is here. Page 2 is here.
Instead of practicing football plays to prepare for their homecoming game, the young men spent their time becoming better people and completing their assignments by Wednesday. They were required to do at least one service project for their family, write a report on what they did, and document the project with pictures; their report needed the signatures of their parents. The young men were required to attend a special class on building character. They were required to visit elderly and disabled people in two Roosevelt nursing homes. They were all required to attend a study hall on Wednesday. Any young man struggling with grades were required to show significant improvement.
All the boys were required to memorize the following statement and recite it to a coach at some point during the study hall. “Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it, piece by piece – by thought, by choice, courage, and determination.”
After the study hall, the young men learned whether or not they had earned the right to play football for their high school that week. All but nine of the players were given their black and gold jerseys. This does not mean that the nine players are finished with football. The nine players can still earn their jerseys by meeting their last few requirements. New captains for the football team were also elected.
The school and the coach were inundated with media attention and emails from across our nation. This caused difficulty in staying focused on their goals, but Coach Labrum used the national coverage to teach yet another point to his players. “We told them, `This isn’t just Utah. We have an opportunity to be an inspiration to an entire nation by doing the right things, by following through – and not just this week. We need to continue to do the right things.’”
The Union High School football team lost their homecoming game, but they brought tears to their coach’s eyes by reciting the above statement as a team before leaving the football field. It appears that the young men learned their character lessons well.
I am very pleased when I hear of people who are willing to plant their flags and stand on good principles, particularly when they do so in order to teach correct principles to the rising generation. I am especially proud of the fact that Roosevelt is my home town and Union High School is my school. Goooo Cougars!