From the Sidelines: A Character-Focused Half-Time
by Dr. David Keller, Director of the Hollingsworth Center for Ethical Leadership at Texas A&M University
Note: This article was originally published a few years ago when Dr. Keller was on staff at Character.org.
The game was OK… but what a halftime!
This past week, I had the opportunity to visit the tiny rural town of Chester, Texas (about 100 miles northeast of Houston). On Friday night, I received an invitation to ride into town to watch the local Chester High School football game.
I accepted the invitation (what else was I going to do in Chester on a Friday night???) I know what you’re thinking. Texas High School football. Friday Night Lights. Your mind is likely racing to images of stadiums that cost tens of millions of dollars to support massive football factories that fuel local economies and provide fresh recruits for top collegiate programs.
Ehhh…not so much in Chester, Texas. Chester’s stadium doesn’t even have bleachers. There are some concrete steps built into the side of a small hill, but most fans just bring lawn chairs.
Yes, it is true that Texas is fertile ground for collegiate football recruiters. Not so much in towns like Chester. It’s highly unlikely any player from either team will ever see a collegiate roster. Chester’s school population is so small they don’t even play 11-on-11 football. They play “6-man football,” a scaled down (but highly entertaining) version of the game to allow smaller schools to compete.
Full disclosure: I totally, thoroughly, completely LOVED this experience. The people were astonishingly friendly and welcoming. The crowd size seemed to exceed the population of the entire town — plus some. It was truly a glimpse into small town America.
No doubt similar scenes were playing out in small towns throughout the country. But my lasting memory of that night had nothing to do with the fun atmosphere or the fierce on-field competition.
It was what happened at halftime.
During halftime, the 6 seniors from the Chester football team held a special on-field ceremony where they asked their favorite teacher to come out on to the field and stand beside them. Then, the public address announcer read a simple paragraph — written by the players themselves — about why they chose that particular teacher.
One by one, each player’s paragraph was read aloud. Each referenced specific character qualities the player noticed in the teacher, and how that teacher inspired them to emulate strong character in their own lives.
“You are like a father figure to me,” said one player.
“Your integrity inspires me to keep striving to improve my own behavior,” said another.
“You push me to do my best in and out of the classroom,” said another.
The stands roared their approval after each reading. I frequently saw hundreds of heads nodding in strong affirmation among the crowd as the teachers’ special qualities were highlighted. It was a truly powerful moment. I’ll not soon forget it.
A few quick thoughts and observations:
- These boys truly respected and appreciated these teachers. This was not some “go-through-the-motions” moment for them. Each narrative was carefully crafted and heartfelt.
- These teachers were truly humbled and honored by the ceremony. I could tell each of them felt a little uncomfortable with such public attention — obviously that isn’t why they do what they do — but they were clearly emotionally moved by the moment.
- Character role models and caring relationships still matter to young people. Without exception, each letter spoke of the genuine caring relationship they had with their exemplar.
- This moment would have happened whether I was there or not. I was just lucky enough to see it in person. Makes me appreciate how many amazing teachers there are throughout our country that I will likely never know about. Whoever and wherever you are…thank you.
- As a member of the Character.org staff, I have the privilege of overseeing the Promising Practices program which highlights specific, unique practices across the world that make a difference. This simple ceremony highlighted several of our 11 Principles Framework, including Principle 4 (Creating a Caring Community) and Principle 10 (Family and Community engagement). The entire town learned more about the core values of Chester High School and their shared commitment to inculcate those values into the lives of the students.
- Sports still provide a powerful context for character to occur. Even in a small town like Chester, varsity athletes are seen as role models for many younger students. It was undoubtedly powerful for these impressionable youngsters to see their local youth heroes place such a high value on character.
Chester went on to win the game easily that night. But I suspect that, many years from now, those of us who attended that game probably won’t remember the score or any specific play. But each of us will remember the special moment at halftime when a group of young men chose to honor their teachers for the character investments they had made in their lives.
That, friends, is what a true victory looks like.