One week prior to the spring school shutdowns, twelve Montrose athletes partook in a group conditioning exercise. The very next day, twelve Elk Lake athletes partook in the same exercise. The exercise itself was simple yet emotionally and physically daunting. It was the “Stone Exercise.”

The “Stone Exercise” is a fun team event that brings athletes and coaches together in a way few could ever fathom. As a team, you run through the woods making your own trail—this is when you get to learn what being “light on your feet” really means. Some trip and fall over downed trees or branches, but eventually everyone makes it to the “golden zone.”

The golden zone is a location deep in the woods where a pile of stones exists. Some stones are large, others small, but no matter their size, they have a story—your story. Without athletes knowing what the stones symbolize, we all grabbed one a piece and brought it back into the field where we initially started our journey.

In the field, we gathered in a circle and began conducting exercises such as push-ups, overhand claps, flutter kicks, etc. Then, students were instructed to pick up their stones. With stones in hand, we started doing overhead shoulders presses, squats, lunges, etc. As the athletes grew tired, they then got to listen to a story—my story.

In life, we all have something that keeps us “weighted down.” But it is up to us to acknowledge exactly what it is that weighs us down. And for years, my weight came from a helicopter incident back in 2008 Afghanistan where I broke my neck. It was a dark time when everything I ever fought for in my adult life, temporarily, came crashing down all because of that one incident. I was lost, unsure what I could physically and mentally do, and frankly, depressed.

I told the story of the helicopter incident to my team. Once they heard the story, they watched me grab my stone, walk toward the wood line, and chuck the stone as far as I physically could. Upon ridding the stone, I walked back into our circle used for our exercises and asked if anyone else wished to reveal what it was that weighted them down. More than half shared their own personal and very unique stories.

But that left us with half not wishing to share what it was that weighed them down in life. Those who no longer had a stone were asked to stand in front of one of their peers who still held the weight. They then were instructed to take the stone from their peer and face the wood line. Those who had their stones taken from their peers were then instructed to place their hands on he or she who now possessed the stone. Together they walked toward the woods and as a pair, chucked the stones as far as they could as a team.

The moment they got rid of their stones, the came back to our exercise circle and learned the most valuable lesson I could have ever taught them as a coach. And that lesson is quite simple.

“Sometimes, you cannot get rid of your dead weight by yourself. But with a team by your side, you can rid the weight and fly like an eagle and soar freely through life.”

You see, as a coach, I have been mentored by some of the greatest people who ever walked the face of this earth. From Pop Warner and high school football coaches, to military senior enlisted and officers, to high ranking government officials, all the way through the entertainment world—so many whom I hold at the highest prestige have helped mold me to be a better human.

Coaching a high school sport is not necessarily about the sport itself. It is about utilizing a sport to help teach life skills. And for me, it was about teaching life skills in making young men and women into learning how to be better humans. And that was our motto this year.

Inheriting a football program on a lifeline brought about serious challenges. Outsiders only seem to care about wins and losses. They forget that the sport they pay attention to is not a college program nor a professional one. It is high school. And in high school sports it should be understood that such activities are intra-curricular—not to be confused with extracurricular.

You see, intra-curricular activities are a branch of the overall school system. And that system has one purpose and one purpose only—to help students grow mentally, physically, and socially.

In turning this program back on its feet, student athletes needed to embrace hope and trust. Trust in the program itself and hope in its future. But to do this, I, the head coach, needed to show my own personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities so they and their families could see I was no different then they—human.

In the spring, they had one task and one task only—bring just one player out with them when we begin summer conditioning. Why? Because it is their team. And, they did exactly what was asked from them allowing us to more than double our program from the year prior. That in itself was a success.

With the team, we were fortunate to see a few female athletes wishing to participate. I was elated seeing such young yet powerful women seek the desire to break barriers. This also allowed our program to break barriers as we then brought in the first ever female football coach in our league who was a Godsend to us all.

We entered the season with a true team willing to sweat and bleed on the practice field. Without a scrimmage, it was next to impossible to truly gauge where we were at when it came to the sport of football itself. And it showed with our first game against Susquehanna.

But with a smart core of athletes and coaches, we were able to make adjustments on the fly and well into our preparation for our next game. It was a game which the program made a serious statement in defeating our opponent by forty points. But most importantly, it was another victory in the sense that our athletes and those from Holy Cross exchanged numbers and social media handles after the game inevitably making friendships. Arguably, this made me prouder of our program and that of Holy Cross more so than the game victory itself.

Within three days of that last game played for the season, a stone came crashing down on all of us. It was a weight we could not rid on our own. It is a weight we as an entire community, nation, and the world has carried since the COVID-19 virus swept across seas and lands. But like the first time we came together as a team with our stone exercise, together we will eventually lift the weight off of us and drive on with our lives.

I pray our athletes never forget that while the weight pays a heavy toll on the world around us, it should not bring them down as individuals. Now, more than ever, it is our job, as a team, to thrive on with our motto in lifting others back to their own two feet and “Be A Better Human.”

And with our teammates, I know that is exactly what they shall do—lift others so they too can prosper in being better humans.

(Patton is the head coach for the cooperative Montrose and Elk Lake football team, as well as a veteran, author, actor, and father.)

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