The artistry of persistence
● By Richard Gaw
On the evening of Aug. 29, 2014, moments after the Avon Grove football team lost its opening game against rival Kennett by a score of 28-13, a Red Devil player was overheard speaking to a teammate on their way back to the locker room. "You know, Coach O'Neill is right," the player said. "All we need to do is buy into the program, and we're gonna turn this around. Well, I'm in. I'm in totally. You?"
The other player nodded. The team then proceeded to lose every game of the season, just like they had done the year prior to that, but there is logical evidence that points to what that player said as the moment the Avon Grove football program was reborn.
When Harry O'Neill took over the moribund Red Devil football program last year, several questioned his reasons for leaving his long-time post as the defensive coordinator for a successful Unionville team in order to take over a program in complete disarray. In fact, when a Chester County Press reporter spoke with O'Neill soon after he was named as the new head coach in April 2014, he asked what convinced O'Neill that this was the right move.
"When you're 2-19 over two seasons, the game becomes an afterthought, and the football program becomes irrelevant," O'Neill told the reporter. "Every time we would look at Avon Grove game film, we'd wonder, 'There is talent there. How do these guys not win many games?' In the time I've been at Avon Grove, I've already seen that the guys here are much better than what I've seen on the field. The talent level is there to be successful."
O'Neill said that he came to Avon Grove not just to improve its won-loss record, but to, in his words, "heal the culture." Over the course of the winless 2014 season, during moments when his players and their parents and everyone associated with the Avon Grove football program began to doubt that they would ever see the payoff in O'Neill's great ambition, he continued to press the fundamentals. He continued to maximize his players' potential. Loss after loss, he pressed the entire program to continue to compete whistle to whistle.
Last Friday evening in Kennett Square, the scenario that O'Neill first envisioned when he took over the program more than a year ago played out before him in the immediate aftermath of his team's 42-7 victory over Kennett. As the final seconds ticked off, his players could barely contain their joy on the sidelines. The student sections – one on either side of the field – stepped up the chants they had yelled all game long. Fittingly, the first player who embraced O'Neill after the game was quarterback Shane McLaughlin, who helped engineer his team to their first victory in over two seasons. The giant albatross was finally lifted over the Avon Grove football program, and it flew out of sight.
Given a blank piece of paper, a writer fills it word by word, in an effort to create stories from mere sentences. Faced with a white canvas, a painter dips a brush into color and applies it, one stroke at a time, so that these brushstrokes can nearly bring a painting to life. Armed only with an idea, an architect arrives at an empty space and is asked to apply his or her ingenuity, so that the empty space is replaced with functionality and beauty. Every year, a high school coach is given a rambling, disconnected bunch of teenagers and charged with the responsibility of getting them to believe in the power of commitment. Although it may be too far reaching a thought to connect a coach to the likes of a writer or a painter or an architect, we will suspend it for a moment in order to give O'Neill credit for his artistry of persistence.
Last Friday's convincing win may be just one victory – and there are nine more games to be played this season – but O'Neill is getting an entire culture to believe in itself again.