Aaron Moorehead: From Walk-on to World Champion

Nine games into the 2018 NCAA football season, the Vanderbilt Commodores have racked up 2,075 total receiving yards under the direction of Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead. This Saturday, Aaron’s receiving corps, who have already accounted for 14 touchdowns, will again be called upon to light up the scoreboard as Vandy battles the University of Missouri in SEC play.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Coach Moorehead, who looks like he could still suit up and play, in his spacious office in the McGugin Center down in Nashville. Check out our conversation here: https://www.goodathleteproject.com/podcast/

Aaron was a standout high school player at Deerfield High School in the suburbs of Chicago, but the option offense they ran didn’t provide many opportunities to highlight the skillsets of one of the area’s top receivers. He was a talented track athlete as well, finishing 4th in state in the 110m High Hurdles. His athletic ability was obvious. Still, the offers did not roll in as some thought they might, and he accepted an opportunity to walk on at the University of Illinois.

At 6’3” 185, the talented but undersized Moorehead redshirted that first year, opting to build his frame and work to more fully understand the offense and culture of Head Coach Ron Turner. His work paid off. He improved physically and mentally, ultimately earning a scholarship. Though he had a couple setbacks along the way (tune in to the podcast to hear the details) he bounced back, ultimately leading the team to a 10-2 record in 2001. Moorehead shined that season. The Illini won a Big Ten Championship, finished 16th in the nation, and went on to battle LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

85 career receptions, 1,293 yards, and 9 TD grabs later, he knew he wasn’t done. He was just hitting stride. Still, offers to play in the NFL did not roll in as some thought they might.  Aaron accepted an opportunity as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts.

By that time, he was no stranger to the process. He was used to overcoming obstacles and smashing expectations. So when most undrafted free agents were hoping desperately to find a spot on a roster, Aaron simply went back to work. Once again, that work paid off. Aaron made the roster, played 5 years for the Colts, and won a Superbowl in 2006 over the Chicago Bears.

That win was the perfect capstone to an athletic career. His father, Emery Moorehead, played tight end on the 1985 Super Bowl Championship – you guessed it – Chicago Bears. By beating his father’s former team, the Mooreheads became the first father-son duo to play for Super Bowl winners.

When his time in the NFL ended, Aaron was faced with an all-too-familiar dilemma. Life as an athlete is one of clear expectations, constant growth, and direct feedback from coaches. It is a life of physical exertion and psychological strain. It is camaraderie and setbacks, sacrifice and glory. It’s an experience that cannot be replicated in the “real” world. He wasn’t sure what to do next.

When the next step was unclear, it was his father Emery who told him it was time to get off the couch, pick something he was passionate about, and get to back work. Again, Aaron stepped up to the challenge. He went over to his alma mater, Deerfield High School, and volunteered assisting with the wide receivers.

From there, he started going to coaching conventions, met professionals in the field, and landed graduate assistant position at the University of New Mexico. When the wide receiver coaching position opened up a year later, he applied, excited to make the full transformation from college athlete to college football coach. Though many though he would, he didn’t get the job. Looking back on that disappointment, he says “they were right, I wasn’t ready.”

Once again, Aaron was undeterred. He went on to be the quality control coach at Stanford University, where he was able to play an important role in a major football program which was routinely in the national spotlight. Shortly thereafter, he accepted his first full-time job at Virginia Tech, working for previous podcast guest and Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer. In 2015, Aaron went on to coach receivers at Texas A&M, where the Aggies were consistently among the top teams in the SEC.

Then he set Anchor Down in Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been flying ever since. Their only losses this year have been teams ranked among the Top 15 in the nation, including a one-score game against Notre Dame (#3).

He has seen success everywhere he has been, and he’s had to earn it. Still a young man with a bright future, he’s taken a simple mantra to every stage of his journey: “prove that you can provide value to your organization.” A simple strategy. A strategy that has proven to be successful.

Tune in to our podcast with Aaron to hear more strategies for success. It’s especially interesting to hear him talk about legendary coach Tony Dungy and some of his teammates with whom he went to the Super Bowl.

With Peyton Manning, there was no letdown… every snap was like the game was on the line,” he said.

His advice to athletes is amazing: “Be humble and don’t be short-sighted. Be somebody that the coaching field knows about.’

And his advice to us all is a necessary thought: “Take time to learn about people who are different than you are.”

So much to learn from Good Athlete, Kind Coach, and someone we’re happy to have as part of the Good Athlete Project family, Aaron Moorehead.

 

The Coaches We Mean to Be

When fall rolls in, the leaves on the old oaks lining Appian Way provide an idyllic view from the corner office of Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Rick is also the Co-Director of Making Caring Common, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child raising.

We had the privilege of sitting down with him to record an episode of the “Good Athlete Podcast”, which seems as appropriate now as ever. The discussion is an essential one. After all, sports don’t teach life lessons, intentional teachers and coaches use sports as a platform to teach life lessons. Rick agrees, as he does “not think there’s anything about sports, per se, that build character.” There are good sports environments and bad sports environments. It’s coaches. It’s culture. It’s not automatic.

rick-weissbourd_3_605

Photo credit: The Harvard Gazette

Similar to the research outlined in his book, The Parents we Mean to Be, Rick notes that some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught by the mentors in this space, though they are not necessarily. In sports, one’s intense feelings are colliding with the intense feelings of another. A coach has the ability to create an environment that values competition but frames it in a healthy way so that both teams shake hands by the end of the game. On the other hand, the coach can also fuel negative feelings and demonize an opponent. Both of these situations regularly present themselves.

There’s clearly potential to influence young people through sports. The questions for the coach is, what will you do with it?

Empathy, for example, has become a staple concept in modern classrooms. Sports offer the opportunity for young people to empathize with people that are different than them. When the culture is appropriately created, they provide the opportunity to take other perspectives, to work together toward a shared goal.

Emotional regulation has provided massive psychological benefit for young people by assisting with stress-management, ability to focus, and ultimately resulting in feelings of self-worth. Healthy sports cultures teach young people to regulate their emotions in emotion-rich environments. Rick adds that “intense competition can be really good for kids” IF, in keeping with the theme, coaches help young people frame these moments. Intense competition does not include excessive violence and rule breaking. It can include full effort, quick decision making, and the prioritization of team over self. Emotions need to be regulated. That skill can serve as a successful strategy in many other areas of the student’s life.

What is so refreshing about Rick’s perspective is that he acknowledges that feelings of aggression and competition should not be met with shame. It is rarely okay to chastise a child for feeling any sort of way; rather, we have an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with those feelings. That, coaches, can be a life lesson.

He notes that these life lessons are not always conveyed in the ways we assume. Coaches who cultivate us-vs-them or win-at-all-costs cultures often include explicit or implied permissions of violence and rule breaking. Those are the toxic situations which undercut healthy adolescent development. Rather benignly, they create unpleasant experiences in sport and do not allow students to reap the full benefits of the experience.

If those toxic mindsets continue, how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. “Being a man” in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.

That said, Rick’s mission is clearly aimed not at finger pointing, but at accurate looking. Counterbalancing those violent, toxic cultures, there are “everyone-gets-a-trophy-cultures.” These too can be harmful, since “kids need to learn to cope and deal constructively with underperformance.”

Unfortunately, popular opinions of sport seem to include either 1) win at all costs, or 2) you’re all perfect.

At the Good Athlete Project, the goal for students is to win as a team, with the win serving as the product of healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement.

We realize that the win is not all that matters, which is why the “healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement” line is so essential. Win or lose, students who learn that sort of lesson will undoubtedly be on a positive path.

So when the leaves change color this fall, let’s be intentional with what we teach. It could be deliberate practice, growth mindset, grit, or any character trait that might associate with longitudinal success.

Whatever it is, let’s align the coaches we are with the coaches we mean to be.

For more information regarding Rick’s work with Making Caring Common, find him here: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/

 

 

 

 

Lost Boyz: Baseball as Education

LaVonte Stewart is not shy about his criminal record, which could “stretch across the street.” It is his past which makes his message so powerful. He is the leader of the Lost Boyz, a sports-based youth development program on Chicago’s South Shore. Students come to the Lost Boyz to play baseball and fast pitch softball, but learn far more than how to throw or swing. When you are one of the Lost Boyz, you grow as a human being. It is not where you begin that defines you, LaVonte suggests, but how you develop, and how you positively affect the world.

We first met LaVonte at the Lost Boyz headquarters and immediately respected his mission and approach. He aims for “raw, real conversations” that are missing from so many educational environments. For LaVonte, sports are the hook. Once he’s hooked you, the education begins, with civic engagement, academic preparation, cultural enrichment, and service learning at its core. Relationship building is equally important to LaVonte and his staff, since “many of the kids we engage with have toxic relationships in their lives.” The Lost Boyz do more than expose their students to positive relationships. They are also exposed to other cultures, taken “out of the homogenous area they’re in to learn about other types of people.” Exposure to new ideas adds depth to one’s thinking. It also helps develop a skill set which, once students graduate into the working world, helps people engage in respectful, productive collaboration. An important ability, since “Chicago is the one of the most segregated cities in the world.” LaVonte hopes to bridge that gap.

Service learning is another important aspect of the Lost Boyz curriculum, contributing to a deepening sense of extended community. They serve a dual purpose, as the projects also empower those reaching out, bringing young people a sense of accomplishment, “instead of always being on the receiving end of service efforts.” LaVonte looks for mutually enhancing relationships, especially since he sees Chicagoans, regardless of which side of the city they are from, as an incredibly loyal bunch. That can be good and bad, since fierce loyalty can keep communities homogenous. “We don’t venture out like we should,” he says.

LaVonte has taken it upon himself to solve issues which he believes have been sensationalized, though it has not always been an easy task. There were times when he and his family had to be on food stamps before the non-profit took off. He kept a dream of helping his community in sight, and passion kept him moving incrementally forward. He knows the importance of his work. He has seen the positive effects of it, and felt the heartbreak when members of his community fell victim to violence and lives of crime. The rampant level of sensational media has not helped – perhaps most obviously in the portrayal of police violence against people of color. As he notes, we are all aware that the problem exists, the question is, what are we going to do about it?

Beyond the Badge is one of the powerful strategies used by LaVonte and his team. We stopped by this summer, when the Lost Boyz hosted an event to demonstrate community appreciation for 34th district Chicago police. The event featured barbeque, music, and a softball game where a team of officers took on a team from the community. At one point during the day, there was an exchange of gifts: athletes gave gift bags to the officers, and the officers pinned badges on their uniforms. There were hugs, handshakes, and laughs. The event was the culmination of the year’s efforts, which included workshops at Lost Boyz headquarters where police and students engaged in some of those “raw, real conversations.” There were tense moments, but all sides came out feeling like they understood each other better. In a world of prejudice and knee jerk reaction, these sessions were allowing each side to paint a more complete picture of the other. Without further prompting from LaVonte, those police-student relationships continued. Members of the department often checked in on students, bringing school supplies and words of encouragement. Many of those relationships continue to this day.

LaVonte’s positive approach comes somewhat in response to “so-called activist groups” who would aim to capitalize on issues but only make them worse. We know the problem that exists between black men and police, it has existed for generations. “The police were started as a slave patrol – we know where the issue is, so how do we address it?” he asked. With the acknowledgment that community-police relations are bad and might be getting worse (or at least more public), LaVonte strives to find a solution other than violence. The answer is relationships, friendships – “instead of compounding the pain, we try to amend it.”  In our conversation, he brings up Dr. King, who said “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Light is love, he adds.

The Lost Boyz certainly build relationships. It is encouraging to see. So much of their work cannot be represented in statistics or any sort of quantifiable data, but when you are standing alongside LaVonte at one of the Lost Boyz events, you can feel it. This work has power. And you can hear it, never more than in my favorite story from the day. One of the Lost Boyz, a graduating senior and an especially friendly young man, stood about 6’4” and was a true success story. He was heading off to college, to play baseball. His talent was cultivated by the coaches of Lost Boyz, What cannot be seen when he steps on the mound next spring is that his test scores were improved and his college journey was supported by LaVonte and his staff. But that’s not all. As we stood together watching the last few kids tossing a ball in the street, this young man told us that he would be working toward a career in criminal justice. A future police officer, hoping to make the world a safer place. A young man, no longer a boy. No longer lost.

 

 

Find more about the Lost Boyz here, and hear our conversation with LaVonte here or by searching “Good Athlete Podcast” on iTunes or Soundcloud

This article was originally published online at the Good Men Project

 

JIM DAVIS is the Director of the Good Athlete Project, an education consulting foundation which helps students realize their potential through athletics. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. He is a former international semi-professional football player and current coach. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @coach4kindness