The Last Practice

by Ryan Johnson

The high school football season concludes this Friday and Saturday with the State Championships at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. As the games are played out, several football careers will also come to an end. For many of the players this was a journey that began in elementary school, and for all but a handful going on to play in college, this will be the last time the boys take to the field. As fans, we celebrate the action on the field and hope that months of preparation bring home the title. In reality, making it this far is reason enough to celebrate as no matter what happens in the game, there is no more football to be played after the final.

One of the hidden gems of reaching the state finals is that as a program you have reached the last stop on the line and you get to be in charge of your last practice.  You get to set the date and prepare for the last time you will be with your team, all together and happy in preparing for the next game. As a coach, I absolutely loved our last practice the day before playing in the state championship. We knew that no matter what, nobody else in the state got to play any more football and we were not missing out. Losing in the playoffs brought about a sudden and abrupt end to playing football but it also meant not getting to hang out with all of your teammates on the field anymore.

I look back to my high school career and think about how it felt to have the season end. Some years it was understanding and almost fitting, other years it felt as if you had been cheated, and it simply wasn’t fair. But that’s life.  Sometimes it isn’t fair and you don’t always get what you want, but you have to get back up and roll with the punches. Football is a precursor for life in this regard. Many aspects of teamwork, preparation, dealing with adversity, etc. – the list goes on and on – will certainly pay off for these players down the road. But sometimes you are lucky enough to reach the ultimate opportunity to play for the state championship and use up all of the football that you possibly can in a season or a career.

The first time I experienced the last practice, our head coach blew the whistle to “bring it in.” The players and coaches all looked around at each other in disbelief. I know I didn’t want it to end, nor did most of the players. We had bonded so deeply over the course of the extended season it felt as if we would play forever. But it had to end. The state high school league said we couldn’t play anymore and that was it.

We did something amazing that day and continued the tradition from that point on at the last practice. After the coach brought us all in and went through final thoughts and announcements for the state championship the next day, we formed a tunnel for the seniors to walk through. The line began with the younger players and stretched the field growing with older players and ended with us coaches. It was such a sight to see the seniors all huddled up on the other end of the tunnel as they hugged and congratulated one another. They would see each other again the next day and in school the following Monday, but it would never be the same as it was right there in the last practice, as the next time they would all be together it would be over.

One by one the seniors walked through the line hugging and sharing words and tears with their teammates.  As they reached us coaches, there was not a dry eye on the field. I remember hugging my position guys deep, thanking them and telling them we had one mission left, sharing tears all the while.  When the final senior stepped into line, the applause grew to a roar. Some years it was a captain or a star player, and other years it was a guy that maybe hadn’t played a great deal but simply didn’t want football to end as it meant so much to him.

We lost the championship game that first year we named our last practice but went on to win it the next year. In the final moment of the victory the next year, there was a shot of three of our players arm in arm hugging with tears flowing.  Tears of joy for winning the championship or tears of sorrow as it was over – it didn’t matter, they were brothers in arms as they had been for each other for a long time, and they would continue to be there for each other for many more years. Football teaches so many important life lessons and it isn’t always all about winning. But sometimes, just like in life, it feels great to be rewarded with a win.

Best of luck to all of the players, coaches, fans, towns and communities as they get to play the game one more time.  Congratulations on using up all of the football you possibly could have. You got to name your last practice.

Ryan Johnson – “RJ” played football for Normandale Community College and Augsburg University. He now teaches physical education at Wayzata High School and is the Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for Wayzata Public Schools, a position he began in 2000. Wayzata Athletics have captured 64 team state titles in his tenure and Johnson works directly with the three-time state champion football program as Director of Operations and Player Development. Johnson was named the NSCA 2017 National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. He is the Regional Director / Secretary for the National High School Strength Coaches Association (NHSSCA).