By Kay Ditzenberger
On Nov. 30, the head coach of the Snohomish High School football team, Mark Perry, resigned. His resignation was prompted by a small but highly vocal group of parents who believed the Snohomish football team was not winning enough games. So, after 18 years as head football coach, Snohomish High School said farewell to Mark Perry. It is the opinion of this parent, and the majority of parents at Snohomish High School, that the circumstances surrounding Perry’s resignation were not only blatantly flawed but extremely tragic.
High school football across the U.S. is unfortunately dominated by coaches, community members and families that have come to see the wins and losses of their high school football teams as highly significant events in their lives. Perhaps people are motivated by the desire to put their son or daughter in the best possible position to attain a highly coveted D1 full ride scholarship. Maybe they are motivated by the sheer fact that in America, winning has become the true measure of success and worth. Or, they are possibly looking for the vicarious fulfillment of unmet dreams through their high school football son or daughter. Whatever the motivation, the need to win, and win at any price, has become an unhealthy obsession. Our high school teams have become mini NCAA training camps and this has obliterated the actual value of high school athletic competition.
Snohomish was different, at least for a time. They taught and believed that participation in athletics provided lessons in sportsmanship, leadership, and team work. They believed, as did athletic leaders of the past, that wins follow dedication, execution, focus and full participation on and off the field. They also taught and believed that winning was not the true measure of worth and that losses presented equally essential opportunities for lessons in perseverance, commitment and self sacrifice. Mark Perry’s resignation signals an unhealthy and highly unfortunate shift in how athletic competition and possibly how a person’s worth are now estimated.
I am particularly saddened by Mark’s resignation because I am the mother of the young boy with Down syndrome, Ike Ditzenberger, who played on Mark Perry’s team. In the midst of a 2010 shutout loss to the Lake Steven’s Vikings, and with 10 seconds left in the game, Mark blew his whistle and guided Ike onto the football field. “Just give him 10 yards, will you please?” were Mark’s words to the Lake Stevens Viking players. The Lake Steven’s players looked at Mark and without hesitation said, “We know what to do coach,” and without consulting their coach, gave Ike a 51-yard touchdown. At that split second in time, we all learned a lesson from Mark Perry and the young men on the Vikings team. It had nothing to do with winning or losing. It had everything to do with the development of compassionate, caring, leaders who stood their ground and made a decision that was more profound and life-changing than any win will ever be. In that moment, the focus of the game and the priorities of the players were clearly not on winning. When winning becomes a priority the values displayed by Mark and the Lake Stevens Vikings are lost. When the score at the end of the game becomes the primary focus of a team, those that lose in the process are students, families and community members.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Season of Life, a Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood,” author Jeffrey Marx tells the amazing story of Joe Ehrmann, 14-year NFL veteran, who now coaches and teaches about the destructive consequences of coaching and leadership based upon wins and losses. “If you look over your life at the end of it … life wouldn’t be measured in terms of success based on what you’ve acquired or achieved or what you own … the only thing that’s going to matter is what kind of father were you, what kind of husband were you, what kind of coach or teammate were you … success comes in terms of relationships.” That is what Coach Perry taught and believed. That is the kind of man who resigned because he did not produce enough wins to satisfy a thirst for success and distinction based upon values and assumptions that the majority of parents and community members do not share.
In 2008, our family arrived in Snohomish and our sons were quickly enrolled at Snohomish High School. After only a few days, our 16-year-old-son came home to report, “It’s different from other schools I’ve been in. At Snohomish High we’re all the same. There aren’t the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the not so beautiful, the smart and the not-so-smart kids, we’re all the same. Snohomish High School is a safe, easy, fun place to be.”
Will the treasure of a level playing field be lost due to the dismissal of Coach Perry? I hope it will not, but I fear it will. When a servant leader is dismissed based on wins and losses, the message will not slip by students and their families. The tragedy is that a distinction has been made; a line has been drawn. Students and all who are watching can’t help but conclude that winning and losing do, in the final analysis, matter most. The message is clear, you have to win; compassionate consistent leadership is not enough. We are making the not-so-subtle statement that it’s the wins that ultimately count. We’ve lost our identity, we’ve lost our way. It’s seismic and it’s tragic.
Our family believes in this community. Snohomish and its citizens have demonstrated to us over and over again they believe worth is based upon who you are, not what you own or whether you have achieved enough wins to satisfy a success-driven society. They have shown us over and over that when life confronts us with decisions about whether to persevere in the face of economic, professional or relational challenges, perseverance and determination win. Mark Perry’s leadership taught and demonstrated these values on and off the field. To have his influence diminished and replaced by a clear mandate to win is unthinkable and destructive.
Our community needs to say, “Stop.” Stop celebrating renown, prowess and position based solely upon wins and losses. We need to make a public commitment to a community philosophy of hard work, dedication and commitment to the job at hand and teach that winning will inevitably flow from that effort. We need to refuse to let a vocal minority define what winning means. We must keep a firm hand on the commitment not to yield to the pressure of appearance and not yield to those who wish to redefine our success.