Real Strength

by Michael Jones | November 06, 2019

jones coaching at startings strength dallas

“Has it really come to this?”  I asked myself as I looked in the mirror before stepping out of the house in my newly acquired polyester football coach’s polo-shirt.  Professor Rippetoe’s musings about high school football coaches, rang in my ears: “They oughta be taken out back and shot,” but I was, and am, determined to prove him wrong, at least in a single instance. 

Before donning the title of “Mr. Coach Jones,” I was committed to a few other vocations: doctoral studies in philosophy; teaching literature, philosophy, and religious studies at a private school in east Dallas (this is where the “Mr.” comes from); and aspiring to become a Starting Strength Coach and apprenticing at Starting Strength Dallas

In the summer of 2018, I was asked to train a losing football team whose coach, Coach X, belittled them and filled their minds with weightlifting myths. He ultimately undermined my strength coaching by telling them they should “do football-style squats, not that shit Jones tells you to do.”  So, I never made any real progress with those boys.  

In January of 2019, I discovered that Starting Strength was opening up a gym in Dallas.  I immediately reached out to Brent Carter to see how I might get involved with the gym was welcomed aboard as an apprentice. 

Later that spring, Coach X was fired, no head football coach had been appointed, and I still carried the now defunct title of “Strength Coach.” As a younger man, I played rugby in college, casually dabbled with USAW, ran Texas Method with front squats instead of low-bar (I know… “taken out back and shot”), and had online coaching from Joe Jaloszynski SSC, but things significantly changed when I began my apprenticeship with SS Dallas.  

One late-March afternoon, I caught rumor that a small group of dedicated footballers were sneaking into the off-campus weight room and lifting after school (the best rack, bar, and plates in the fieldhouse were my personal equipment that I moved over from my garage, for the sake of having decent equipment at our athletic facility). I spoke with my administration and offered to supervise these illicit workouts. The athletes soon learned of my dastardly deed. 

The next day, a sophomore, Derek, who had been training in the covert operation came to my office hours to voice some concerns. He was worried the team would not get strong under my coaching and wanted to test-run my methodologies. He’s about 5’4’’, maybe 140 lb, and he had a 155 lb squat for an ugly 1RM.  

Fast-forward to July 2019, my school had hired Coach X’s replacement (a dedicated mentor and coach who is more than willing to let his support staff lend their expertise when and where it’s needed). By the end of the month, my athletes were stronger, more determined than ever, and had requested that I become an official part of the coaching staff (beyond my previous position as summer strength-training coach). To be sure, however, I didn’t know a thing about football, much less six-man football, but I am learning. The season ensues, and things are going well; last week, Derek squatted 285 for 3 sets of 5.  Needless to say, they’ve been converted from “football-style squats.” But, as we all know, highs don’t last forever... 

I was called into my boss’s office office during the first week of October and was given a dose of horrible news about a number of shortcomings related to my classroom performance: the difficulty level of curriculum and expectations in my literature class had upset a few parents, a student requested to be placed in another class, and the head of my department seemed to relish in these “failures.” I cried. On my way out of this meeting, I realized I was late getting to the weight room, but I had been so thoroughly beaten down that I didn’t feel up to coaching that day and messaged the athletic director as much. On the way to my car, which was set to take me home, I saw an athlete, Joe, that missed the bus to the off-campus facility. He asked me for a ride.  

Some weeks earlier, Joe had been banging his head against a 225 squat (the kid’s a skeleton). He got gnarly anxiety with 225 on the bar and had failed the sets the workout before on the same weight. Joe is also a prior AP Literature student of mine, so we are close as far teacher and student go. I could sense his apprehension about attempting the same weight failed the day before, so I forced him to take a break by sending him out to my car to retrieve an old pair of lifters I was taking to get cobbled; he thought they were for me. He brought them in, handed me my keys and the shoes, and turned to go warmup for his squats. I called him back over, put the shoes in his hands, made up some damn-fool story about how lucky those shoes were, and that they were now his. Joe is now squatting 265 for 3 sets of 5 like it’s nothing. 

As Joe got in my car that October afternoon, my eyes red and swollen after that beat-down of a meeting I’d had, he read me like an open book. “Jones,” he said, “are you ok?”  At that question, I felt my eyes well-up again. I shook it off and changed the subject. On the way to the fieldhouse, I expressed that I was not going to come in and coach that day because I “just didn’t have it in me.” Joe said, “I recently learned something about barbell lifting and strength: that real strength happens in that moment when you don’t know if you will come back up from the lift, but you try it anyway.” He was quoting me, who was quoting Rip. I scoffed, then chuckled, but stayed inside my cocoon of self-pity.  

I pulled up to the fieldhouse to drop off Joe and leave.  He said, “Will you come in and coach us today?”  

“I just can’t,” I said.  

Joe turned more of my words back on me: "Coach, if you can’t, then you must.”  

That little bastard. 

This young man, who I had coached three times a week for the better part of six months, and who had also been my student in academia, had suddenly become my coach and my teacher.  

I got out of my car, loosened my neck-tie, and walked in to greet a small but scrappy group of young men who had already begun their warm-ups. The first athlete I spoke to said, “Sorry, Coach. I know you want to see our last warm-up, but we had to start without you. I’m on my first working set. Will you come watch?” And that day, thanks to Joe, they got in their fives, and I coached. 

As of last night, the team is 5-0, having beat the pants off the team who were State Champions for the past two years; we have realistic aspirations to take State this year, for the first time in the school’s 48-year history. 

We have the biggest hits and the hardest drives in the game. To mark these occasions, and, more than likely, taunt their opponents, my athletes shout, “Hip Drahve!!!” from the sidelines. 

“So,” now, as I put on my polyester coach’s polo and do one last pass in the mirror, I say, without any trace of irony, “it has really come to this.”

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