Passion Play

Posted by Paula Paine on February 2, 2011 in Alumni, Arizona, athletics, football, "School of Education"

The rumbling clash of helmets is stopped short by the shriek of a whistle and the thud of Coach Arnold’s clip board as it hits the ground. The boys know what’s coming. In a low, staccatoed bellow, she (yes, you read right) – she lays in. “How–many– times–do–I–have–to–say–it? This is a THINKING MAN’S GAME!” Following a review of the play and some specific instructions to the quarterback, they run the play again. And again.

With numbers as thin as the freshmen frames that dot its offensive and defensive lines, many on Mesa Preparatory Academy’s young team have never played a game of football in their lives, much less entire games as two-way players. In fact, the 15 boys seem as out of place as their practice field, a lone patch of green in a sea of desert brown. But because someone cared to plant, water, nurture, and groom a field, and a bunch of green young men, the team has emerged as an inspiration to everyone around them.

No doubt, they took their cue from Coach Amy Arnold. One of two female head coaches of a high school football team in the nation, and head of the only all-female coaching staff, Arnold was as shocked as anyone to find herself in this novel position. But she and anyone who knows her will tell you it all started, and continues, because of one thing – passion. For the game, for the students, for winning, and for teaching.

Arnold’s passion for the game comes from her personal experience playing it. At the age of 31, she joined a professional women’s football league and played throughout the U.S. – her second full-time job, as she called it, but definitely her first love. She played in various leagues for six years, advancing to the championship game one of those years and being named “Most Dedicated Player” several of them. It’s also where she met teammates Angie Darnell and Kim Hoke, now her assistant coaches.

Following her football career, Arnold found herself applying for the assistant coaching position at a start-up preparatory academy that was hiring for a junior high football program because they didn’t have enough students for a high school program. She walked out of the interview as Mesa Prep’s head football coach and, though she didn’t know it at the time, a future teacher.

“Coaching football is what encouraged me to go back to school,” says Arnold. “That’s why I enrolled at OU™. All the parents kept telling me, ‘Amy, you’re making such an impact on my son; you’re making such a difference in his life.’ And I thought, ‘I want more of this. I’m on the right path, so I’m going back to school to become a teacher.’” While going to school, Arnold coached the junior high team for two years before developing a high school program along with her former teammates. She completed her student teaching at Mesa Preparatory Academy in December 2010 and is currently a long-term substitute while she waits for a teaching position to open up.

“I love everything about this school,” says Arnold. “I love the Socratic approach to education, the quality of student, the family values that I see in the kids that I coach, the small 1A type school, the parents that really care – I’ve fallen in love with it all. Nothing would please me more than teaching at this school and coaching high school football for the next 30 years.”

You wouldn’t hear an argument from the students, parents, faculty, staff, or fellow-coaches if she stuck around, either. “There are a lot of parents who sing Amy’s praises,” says Mesa Prep Head Master Robert Wagner. “You certainly aren’t going to get any skeptics among our dads. And the teachers are aware that, if their kids aren’t doing well in the classroom, all they have to do is talk to the coach. Amy and her staff have been really supportive of getting the kids on board to do what they need to do in the classroom.”

That, also, comes from example. “I know why academics are so important,” says Arnold. “My first college experience was through a softball scholarship – that was number one to me and my grades suffered badly. At OU, I was a straight A student. I’m very proud of that. I tell my boys, ‘I’ve got a test tomorrow, so come on – let’s get out of here.’ And every once in a while they’ll ask, ‘Coach, what did you get on that test?’ ‘I got a 98 percent.’ ‘Coach! Good job!’ I tell them it’s because I study. ‘If you start studying, you’ll do the same thing in the classroom. And if you study the playbook, we can be 98 percent on the field! Football is a thinking man’s game.’”

And the players listen. Though they may be small in numbers and stature, they are driven by the two things that are not small – their heart and a healthy respect for Coach Arnold. Hanging on her every word, “Yes, Coach” is their response whether they’re being yelled at for a failed play, being told to drop and give her 50, or being teased about a new girlfriend. With a commanding and compelling balance between drill sergeant, coach, parent, and friend, Arnold shapes the boys on her team as both players and young adults.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” says freshman Nate Stock, “but she knows how to pump us up and how to encourage us. She has a good balance between being hard on us when she needs to be and being understanding. She also knows what you can do and can achieve. At the beginning of the year, I had the speed, but I couldn’t really catch well. But she had faith in me and we just kept working on it. We stayed after practice a couple of times, and I got better.”

Matt Kendall is another of Arnold’s freshman players who played under her in junior high. “I can just tell that she really loves the game,” says Kendall. “That’s why she’s doing all this. Not only is she a woman coaching a guy’s team, but she’s doing it well. And I don’t mean to sound offensive, but I don’t even realize that we have a woman coach. She’s just my coach and you do what she says because she’s the coach.”

“Amy’s passion for the game exceeds most coaches,” says Defensive Coach Darnell. “The care she has for the kids and coaching them properly – teaching them respect, teaching them camaraderie, teaching them discipline and hard work – those are things that will not only affect them on the football field, but for the rest of their lives, in their schoolwork, in their jobs, and in their relationships.”

Offensive Coordinator Hoke agrees. “Amy Arnold is an incredible coach. We all had the same coach while playing professional ball, and she has surpassed our coach in her abilities. She took everything we learned from our head coach and took it to the next level. She’s broken it down so that it doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching it to 30-year-old women or 15-year-old boys. They get it – it’s clear, it’s concise, and it’s pretty amazing. I’ve never seen a team as disciplined, and I’ve been coaching for a while. She deserves every bit of respect she gets.”

With no seniors, only four juniors, and the rest freshmen and sophomores, the high school team finished its first season with a 2-8 record. “There is nothing that I hate worse than losing,” says Arnold. “It becomes a habit, and I get absolutely furious. But the teams we played this year have been playing longer, have more experience, and have more depth. We took our medicine this year, and we needed to. That way we’ll appreciate the wins when they come along. We gained an immeasurable amount of experience this year that hopefully will spill over to next season.”

First-year Championship Silences the Skeptics

The Lead-up

Mesa Prep is one of five Great Heart Preparatory Schools in the Valley. 2008 was the first year for our junior high football program. We lost our first game of the season to Glendale, 18-12, but we won the second game against Scottsdale, 30-6. Next we played Veritas with four players out because of ineligibility. They cleaned our clocks 44-24. It was horrible. So we were 2 and 2 going into the playoffs and we had to face Veritas again – but they hadn’t seen us at full strength. They were a passing team, so I developed a whole new defense against their passing game – every receiver had double coverage. Danged if we didn’t beat them 24-6. That put us in the championship game with a 3-2 record against Glendale, who was undefeated.

The Glendale coach, who is a former NFL player, had been walking up and down the sideline during that game watching me and everything that I did. But I told our boys that we could give him our entire play book and it wouldn’t matter because this was our time. We were the Giants against the Patriots walking into the championship game. They were like – YEAH! They got so excited, and the parents were going berserk. So I had 15 players, 15 sets of parents, two coaches, and an enthusiastic athletic director all on my side. It was a very powerful and emotional thing.

The Secret Weapon

At the beginning of the season, I devised a play that involved the quarterback and the left wing. It was complicated to explain, so we dubbed it the Stealth Wing play, for short. Now remember, these boys hadn’t played football before, and this was a pretty intricate play – it required precise timing, a perfect angle, exact footing. So my quarterback and left wing practiced this play all year long – before practice, after practice, on the weekends – trying to perfect it. They were just enthralled by this play. And they thought the name was pretty cool, too. Well, they were convinced they finally had it down, so I made them run it over and over to prove it. Sure enough – they had it.

So during the championship game, my quarterback, Cameron, was coming to the sideline to get the plays from me. This one time I give him a play and he just looked at me and said, “Coach – Stealth Wing.” I said, “Okay. Run it.” You should have seen the energy field in that huddle when he told the team they were going to run the Stealth Wing. It was electric. And sure enough – touchdown! I was running down the sideline screaming to Cameron – “Go, buddy, go!” It was unbelievable. Just magical.

As the game wound down, we had about a minute and a half to go and we were up a touchdown. We had the ball at first down and I told Cameron to just take a knee to run out the clock. Well, we had never had to take a knee before. The kids knew everything we had taught them about the game, but we had never practiced taking a knee. So when the ball was snapped, not only did Cameron take a knee, but the entire team went down. I turned around to the parents and we were all so touched. It was a precious moment.

The Reaction

When we won against this 5-0 team coached by a former NFL player, I rushed the field in a blubbering mess. I was just so proud of those boys. I was picking them up, hugging them, screaming, “We did it! We did it!” Of course, they got me good with the water jug. But the best part was that my dad was there. So many parents went up to him during the game and told him things about me. He was just beaming with pride. He was my coach when I was growing up, so this was kind of like passing the torch to see me win this championship. It was a pretty special deal.

The other really cool thing was what several of the parents said to me after we won. “Coach,” they said, “I think they had better players, but the difference was that we had a better coach.” That was really something.

The Screenplay

In the future, you may be able to watch as well as read about Amy Arnold’s success as a female football coach. OU-Arizona’s Dr. Karen Bryson worked with Coach Arnold to write a screenplay of the junior high championship team. It is currently in the hands of a marketing agent, and if it is bought and picked up by a producer, it could be coming to a big screen near you!