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July 30, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Taking a real liking to a bunch of guys under the lights on Friday nights

My confession: Getting attached to a high school football team, but maybe we all should

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Canyon Springs players celebrate their playoff win over Basic.

Canyon Springs

Canyon Springs lineman Alonzo Pittman lifts running back D.J. Pumphry into the air after a touchdown. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

On Friday, we posted a long piece that I wrote tracking Canyon Springs High School’s football season and, more to the point, the challenges facing the young men on the squad and their coach.

Now comes this addendum because I must share with you my personal feelings after having found myself becoming attached to the team. It's a risk of the trade to become emotionally connected to a story. And so here is my confession:

I found it next to impossible as I covered the team to keep a dispassionate distance. By the fourth game, I had to stop myself from raising a fist after a good play. And I can’t recall the last time I felt so dejected as a spectator when the team lost on a last-second field goal to Green Valley.

Covering and writing about the team was an incredible experience. When you read the story, you will be introduced to some outstanding people — adults who give a lot of their time and talents to teach young men about football and life, and the young men themselves, many of whom are outstanding citizens despite big obstacles.

I felt the story was worth so much investment because minority communities are much more textured and complex than they are perceived to be.

I’ll play media critic for a second: Most coverage of black America involves, on one hand, either President Barack Obama or accomplished celebrity athletes or entertainers, and on the other hand, crime or some social pathology.

But there’s a whole other story, happening every day, of ordinary people sacrificing to strengthen our communities for the next generation. Coach Hernandez "Hunkie" Cooper and his coaching staff don’t think twice about it. They’re just there, after school, every day, forgoing money and time with their families to work with kids on football and life fundamentals.

I was surprised and disappointed that these efforts go largely unnoticed, though I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising in a city not always known for its civic energies. The clearest manifestation was the small crowds at the games.

Canyon drew decent crowds for home contests, though small considering the student body of 2,600, while drawing tiny crowds on the road. Their opponents often had even fewer fans. I understand we’re a city of shift workers and that people have to work nights, and they may not have transportation.

But given the effort put forth by players and coaches and cheerleaders and band musicians, they deserve better. And this goes beyond football. Allow me to hector a bit here: We should have a citywide initiative wherein those of us with no connection to a school pick a school and then support the students and teachers and staff. Are you a runner? Go to a track meet. Enjoy debate? Go to a forensics event. Volunteer. Give a little money to a club or team. Of course lots of Nevadans are doing this, but the need is great.

Like I said before, I couldn’t believe how quickly I dropped my journalistic pose and started rooting for this football team.

Standing near the field on the sidelines this fall, I was often struck by the phrase “level playing field.” We use it as a metaphor for equality of economic opportunity. But I can tell you that even the metaphor is fictional. The dusty and dry Canyon Springs field, like many others, tilts slightly toward each sideline, presumably to assist with drainage. It’s literally not a level playing field.

And, indeed, certain rich athletic programs clearly have advantages over those such as Canyon Springs. During the second home game, the lights went out and play stopped for 20 minutes. Cooper estimated to me he’s spent $35,000 out of his own pocket to support the program since taking over four years ago. Meanwhile, he was paid $3,200 this season as a coach. Think about it: He pays us to transform the lives of young people.

What does it say about the state of equality of opportunity when even our symbol for it, the alleged level playing field, isn’t level?

The great challenge and joy of this kind of journalism is achieving empathy — seeing the world through the eyes of the coaches, but especially the players, and then trying to transmit that to readers. I haven’t been around high school kids in 20 years. It was intimidating. But the team was incredibly welcoming, and I extend my sincerest thanks to the players and the coaches for letting me hang around and watch and listen.

I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.

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