Today’s post is the monthly reflection from the September 2004 issue of  The Front Porch Newsletter.  If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription.

Goal PostsCan you imagine — just three seconds left on the clock. Your team is losing by 2-points. And you are the field-goal kicker! Can you feel the pressure? Under those conditions, how does a kicker in any stadium maintain his focus knowing what is at stake for their team? My friend, Coach Jim Brown, would call it “margins”. He would tell you it is an advantage that is consistently built little by little — day after day on the practice fields of life. Coach Brown understands margins. For years, he has been helping elementary school children build them through football.

In 1969, when Jim Brown joined up to volunteer as an assistant coach for the St. Raphael football program, it was probably a footnote on the calendar of his busy professional career. Thirty-five years later he has retired from a successful corporate journey — but his legacy will be the margins he has created in hundreds of elementary school football players. You see, as the 2004 football season kicks-off, Jim and his all-volunteer leadership team will suit-up 69 football teams in their own private league. That is not a typo. Sixty-nine teams — of fully-padded kids from the first to eighth grade. This number includes six traveling teams.

This is a lot of football. But ironically, it ultimately has nothing to do with football. It has everything to do with learning about life. Coach Brown likes football, but he is passionate about teaching others to use football as the vehicle for building the margins necessary for life. And the players are not the only students. The coaches and parents learn as well. Call it touchy-feely football if you like. This program is not about winning — but winning is what they do. Last year’s seventh-eighth grade traveling team continued a winning tradition by claiming their Chicago Catholic League Championship.

I recently had lunch with Coach Brown. In our discussions, I was curious as to how you could possibly manage almost 1,600 kids and over 450 coaches. It quickly became clear — you don’t manage them. You lead them. In Jim’s humble nature he quickly points to other people and to another time as to why it works. Jim is quick to give you a history lesson about the beginning of the St. Raphael program — specifically about the vision that was set and the values that supported it. And forty-two years later that vision and those values are still the very fabric of the culture of the program.

It is not left to chance that the vision and values be casually handed down year-to-year. Both coaches and parents are required, at the beginning of the season, to attend a class to hear and understand the vision and values of the program. Does Coach Brown think every coach will be model leaders for their teams? He expects it. But, realistically he knows in the heat of a game that a small number will violate the strength of the culture. When they do, they get one more chance — but only after they understand and recommit to the vision and values of the culture. He knows and makes it clear that the success of the program is about all participants acting for these values.

Like the uprights of a goal post, vision creates the boundaries of what counts. And with every action — – every kick — field-goal kickers never lose sight of those boundaries. Challenged by wind, weather and field position — they remain focused on the space between the uprights. How well defined is your space between the uprights? Without it, how do you know what counts?
For thirty-five years Coach Brown has constantly defined the uprights of the St. Raphael football program through a clear vision built on strong values. And those uprights shine brightly — and create margins for all those involved. They get it right. Upright!