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An Interview with Somers High School Football Coach Tony DeMatteo

In this article, Coach Tony DeMatteo provides his perspective on what makes a successful student-athlete, how coaches can develop leadership skills, and how to foster a smooth transition into high school athletics.

At a time when the sport of football is under attack due to injuries, the Somers’ Football Program from the youth level to the high school level is flourishing in terms of participation. 

The most important thing I do as a football coach is to try to develop a young man to become a good person who is successful whether they are the star of the team or a scout team player.

To many coaches, parents and players think the American dream is to get a college scholarship or to become a pro-player.  I believe the true worth of playing the sport of football is teaching our players to be motivated their entire lives, to be successful in whatever career they choose and to be good citizens of this great country.

Football, or really any spot, should be educational, not an area to develop pro or scholarship players. Approximately 1% of all the kids that play a sport in this country get a tryout to play on a professional sports team.  The percentage of kids getting a college scholarship is not much higher.  Unbelievably, only 4% of kids playing a sport in this country will make a college team.

What are we doing to help the 96% of kids that play for us?  Football coaches today must now promote the sport of football. We can promote football by making the sport fun.  Fun to your players is being able to play. We all want to win, coaches, parents and players. Today’s players want to play more than they want to win.  That is perfect for football over all other sports because we have offensive, defensive and special team positions for our players to participate.  In what other sport can a non-starter enter the game on a kicking unit on the very first or forth play of the game and be in the game one third of the time, instead of waiting until the game is out of hand, like other sports.

I also play more kids on offense and defense than most coaches.  This past season I played 21 kids on offense and 17 kids on defense on or way to winning a sectional championship.  I feel a rested second or third team player can play just as well as a tired first team player.

Football coaches can play more kids by the structure of the game and kids will be excited to come to practice because they know they will have a chance to play. This philosophy keeps the parents happy as well.  Somewhere on your team there will be a group of players that are not ready to play.  Work hard with the kids that are playing and your coaches to give those scout team players respect.  We pick a scout team player of the week to be part of the coin toss at our game.  We have a team dinner the night before every game and I speak about the scout team player to all attending the dinner.

The freshman, JV as well as the varsity teams must attend this team dinner.  At the end of the year football dinner we give an award to the MVP Scout Team Players of the Year.  We make this our most prestigious award.

Your varsity starters must be constantly taught and reminded that we cannot win unless the scout team does a good job for the team during practice.  We tell the scout team players every day that they have much to do with our team’s success. 

I want all of my players and parents to know how much I care about them and love them.  Emerson defines success as knowing one life has breathed easier because you have lived. Make no mistake, winning drives all of us.  Connecting with all my players and helping them become successful adults is what I believe is the responsibility of a coach.  I believe seeing your players reach their goals in life is so much more rewarding than winning a football game or championship.  In my 44 year coaching career I have had from my program lawyers, doctors, CPS, actors, teachers, policeman, fireman, coaches, an astronaut and one professional player.  Colonel Ron Garan, a former scout team player said on national TV that he became an astronaut due to the values he was taught in my program. This is what coaching is all about.

In trying to develop young men to become good and successful citizens of this country I believe it is imperative to teach leadership skills.  I do not believe leaders are born leaders.  They must be taught.  Leadership is a skill. One of the most successful things I have done over the years to help my players become better people and leaders is the mentoring program I started and implement every season with my football team. I assign every senior and junior to look after every incoming freshman.  They help them with football practice, their schedule, where their classes are located, and help with their lockers.  Basically, to make the transition more pleasant than it usually is for a freshman.                      

After our intra-squad scrimmage preseason we have a cookout with the players and their parents.  We invite the freshman players and their parents to the cookout.  Parents of our mentors and their assigned freshman meet and eat together. It has a great impact on everyone.

I started the mentoring program in 1993 when I coached at Roosevelt HS, an inner city school in Yonkers, NY.  A great player quit that year due to hazing. That player was Jimmy Kennedy, my only professional player in my 44 years of coaching. We have a youth tackle program from the third to the eighth grade – six teams.  I pick 24 varsity players, designating six captains who are responsible for helping to coach each of the six youth teams. They coach them during the summer and on Sunday during football season. This system helps us pick our captains for the varsity season. The team votes for the captain, rather than being picked by me for democratic process.  I make sure the team is told what the important attributes of a captain is.  It is not a popularity contest.  There are two types of leaders, vocal leaders and leaders by example. I believe there is a place for both.  If I had to choose between the two I would select the leader by example.

Running a mentoring program and having a team elect captains minimizes problems in the locker room.  Kids are more inclined to speak about an injustice to a teammate rather than a coach or directly to me. They know the line of communication is always open to the coaches or myself, but they can speak to the captains who in turn will speak to me if they are not comfortable speaking directly to the coaches. As coaches we have to stop talking to our players about scholarships and getting to the next level.  Certainly that will happen to a very small percentage of your team, and we must support them.  Personally, I like one day college camps that your payers are interested in to get exposure.  Players and their parents must be realistic about the boys’ abilities and the colleges they can play at. I do not like the combines that are run.  I feel they are motivated by making money. Kids should play football because football in its rightful place can be one of the most wholesome, exciting, and valuable activities or youth can participate in. It is the only sport that I know of that teaches players to have complete control of themselves, gain self-respect and give forth a tremendous effort and at the same time learn to observe the rules of the game, regard the rights of others and stay within the bound of decency and sportsmanship.

Football in reality is very much the way of American life.  In life players are faced with challenges and they have an opportunity to match skills, strength, poise and determination against each other.  They learn to cooperate, associate, depend upon and work with other people.  They have a great opportunity to learn that if they are willing to work, strive harder when tired and rise to the occasion when an opportunity presents itself, they can leave the game with a strong self-assurance, which is so vitally important later on in all phases of life.

I believe a football coach can teach all these values and lessons through our great sport, not only to the stars but to everyone on the team.

Everyone in education has the fear of instant gratification for our youth today. It is often said that kids do not have the patience to work through challenges like we did years ago.  There is no instant gratification in the sport of football.  We do not play on Monday and again on Wednesday.  Football players have to work hard all week to play one game a week, like adults work hard all week to get paid on Friday. That is why football is more like life than any other sport.

In closing I would like to mention that kids learn values from people they look up to, not from books or lists.  They will look up to all of us, parents, teachers and older players as they work on establishing their own values. That is why I run the mentoring program mentioned above.  Any player that refuses to participate in the mentoring program cannot play for me, regardless of his ability.  If anyone in my program is fortunate to receive a college scholarship that is great.  If anyone makes it to the pro level, that is unbelievable.  The goal of every football player both academically and athletically should be to acquire through football the proper mental tools to deal with the adversity and challenges that we all face in our lives to make the world a better place to live.

Every adult in this country should have the responsibility to show our youth the path to success and happiness.  Every child’s life is not always a smooth path.  Sometimes there are bumps in the road to their success.  Sooner or later with our support they will find the correct road to travel to their success.  That is what I believe coaching and parenting is all about.

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