High School Sports

Why football? Coach writes about personal growth of athletes beyond victories, scholarships

Gig Harbor coach Aaron Chantler chats with wide receiver/cornerback Zack Davis. Chantler is now the offensive coordinator at Auburn High School, coaching under his father-in-law, Gordy Elliott.
Gig Harbor coach Aaron Chantler chats with wide receiver/cornerback Zack Davis. Chantler is now the offensive coordinator at Auburn High School, coaching under his father-in-law, Gordy Elliott. dperine@thenewstribune.com

It was near the end of a hot fall practice and the coach calls for everyone to get on the line. They’re running gassers.

If there is ever a time to question the reason for playing football, this would be one.

So then-Gig Harbor High School coach Aaron Chantler went off the practice script and presented a question. After multiple sprints up and down the field, his players were huffing and puffing.

“Why are you a member of this family?” he asked one.

The player’s response brought tears to just about every eye on the coaching staff, Chantler said. It came from a player who was normally a jokester, someone not normally so serious.

“Coach, it’s all I’ve got,” he said. “This is it for me. I need this, and I need you.”

That was the end of gassers.

“When he said that, he opened himself up to the entire team and coaches. That was a shift for him,” Chantler said. “He was still jovial and happy-go-lucky, but there was a different level of intensity and focus. I had him four years in football and in my classes, but I hadn’t seen something like that before, and he became a leader.”

Chantler believes there’s more to football than a win or loss.

It’s why he wrote an article for USA Football titled, “More than Xs and Os: Making better people.” It published on Wednesday.

Chantler spent the past five years as the head coach at Gig Harbor High School, but he stepped down after the season and is now the offensive coordinator at Auburn High School, coaching under his father-in-law, Gordy Elliott.

Chantler said that in an era where coaches talk at length about the gross trend of entitlement in their young players and where the goal of youth football seems to be more about how many scholarship offers one can obtain, he saw the opportunity to write about how sports goes beyond that.

After contributing to a USA Football podcast earlier this year, he offered a chance to write the article. He said it was therapeutic.

“I really started to think about why I do this,” Chantler said. “You can take the wins away, the two league title trophies we won – I don’t even know where those are. But it’s a perfect example of why that stuff doesn’t matter.

“Being a public servant – in any field – can be draining. And that’s what I was feeling and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

So he thought back to the emphasis he placed on his players: getting them to develop a deeper idea of their why – what is their purpose or reason for playing football?

They’d share it during practices – coaches and players alike – because “we truly believe that we cannot become a family until we truly know why everyone is here.” It was an idea that was sparked after a presentation to the team conducted by John Norlin, who is in charge of student leadership in the Sumner School District.

They began to talk about what the ideal team is supposed to feel and sound like. And they came up with a word: love.

“And you don’t hear that often because this is supposed to be a masculine sport,” Chantler said. “But we were constantly telling the kids we love them and hearing the players tell their brothers how much they love them, that was important to us.”

So how does a coach get players to respond like that?

“You cross your fingers and you hope that it works,” said Chantler, who graduated from Wilson High School.

“When you talk about character development, you don’t know if it’s going to work. But you have to try if you believe in it. If you ask the questions and preach about playing for the guy next to you and developing a family, it’s going to resonate with some of them.”

He said his “why” is to make at least one of his students or players a better person.

“Every team in America says they are a family,” Chantler said. “But what does that mean to be a family? We can all put our hands together and say, ‘Family.’ But when you get off the field, what are you going to do?”

Here’s the full article Chantler wrote for USA Football:


Football is a game of energy and passion. A game of strategy and execution. A game that an entire town, school and community can get behind.

But it’s also often a missed opportunity.

As coaches, we spend so much time planning practices and games, breaking down opponents’ tendencies and focusing on what’s happening the field, sometimes we can forget the game of life that is taking place off of the field. That’s why, as coaches, we cannot miss out on the opportunity that we have to make better people in our programs.

Football is a vehicle that can teach young people many positive traits that will help them in all aspects of life, but that requires us to convey that message to our players. We must not only tell them but show them that who they are as people is more important than who they are as a player on the field.

In order to develop this, the first thing I always start with is explaining to our players and parents that we don’t measure success by wins and losses. Instead, we measure success by the type of people that come out of our program.

While that statement often elicits looks of confusion and questions about the desire to win – and trust me, we all want to win – we need to explain that we fully believe that the wins will take care of themselves if we are successful in our desire to help create better people. Our goal is to help these players become a better version of themselves.

We want people to understand that being a member of this football program means something that extends well beyond the field. While it sounds great to have this philosophy, words are empty if the actions of the program don’t back it up, so we make sure to show the players that we mean this. We accept the fact that we will spend valuable practice time working on ways to challenge ourselves to become the best version of ourselves, and that includes coaches.

We, as a group, decided on three key aspects to this philosophy:

Cotterill, TJ - Tacoma

From there, we as a team, not just coaches, decide on what the aspects of the philosophy actually looks like. So together we decided on a list of seven things that all team personnel would commit to doing for the season.

As our time together goes on, we continue to reference these items as we believe they help all of us become better versions of ourselves. While becomes clear in our program that these things are important, we need another step. We have to understand why these things were important, so our next step is to focus on our own collective whys.

The Why

The idea of the why is extremely common and simple, but it’s something that can also be extremely profound and life changing. As coaches, we are always asking ourselves why in regards to schematics, practices, fundamental skills, etc., so it’s an easy idea to translate for a larger purpose.

Essentially, the why is one’s purpose or reason for doing something. Just as coaches ask themselves, “Why do we want to be a zone read team?” we can ask the players and team personnel why they truly want to be a part of this football family. When we start thinking about our why, we can start developing that family atmosphere that is so important.

During practices, we ask players for their whys as a way to get to know each other. Coaches and players alike share this at random times during practices. The hope is that this activity fosters a connection amongst the team members that provides insight into each individual member. We truly believe that we cannot become a family until we truly knew why everyone is here. It’s hard to sacrifice for the greater good if everyone isn’t up front about their reason for being here.

Of course, there are some answers that are simple like, “I love football,” and that’s a totally acceptable response, but once you get the one player or coach willing to take a risk and dive deeper into his or her why, the entire atmosphere of the team can change.

We love asking players about their whys during the hardest parts of practice. Makes sense right? Challenge them physically, get them to think why are they doing this physically daunting task, then pause and ask them why they are going through it.

The most profound moment came during the dog days of August when we were conditioning. It was hot, and players were running gassers. After a gasser, I asked a player why he was a member of this family. He responded with, “for the guys next to me. They are working hard, so I’m going to work hard for them.”

Surprised and happy, we blew the whistle again to signal another gasser. Next player we asked said, “To be a part of something bigger than myself,” and we liked that response because it echoed our philosophy. Blew the whistle one more time for another gasser, and when they finished we asked a player who was an upbeat guy who was usually joking around. And as he was breathing heavily and fighting tears he said, “Coach, it’s all I’ve got. This is it for me. I need this, and I need you.”

At that very moment we knew that what we were doing was resonating. The entire team gathered around that player, told him we loved him, and were there for him. He broke us out of practice that night and we left feeling like we had done our job. The power that his words contained, the power that stemmed from his “why” and how he embraced the philosophy only fueled us to spend more time working with players on who they were as people.

We did community outreach service projects designed by and led by players. We worked on character development activities weekly (our weekly commitment meetings and leadership council trainings helped with this), and we remembered that everyone has a reason for being a part of this. Each person’s reason might be different, but if we do our best to honor all of the reasons with things that they can use beyond the football field then we will have success.

After the last game of the season, all the senior players talk and provide insight to the other players. That same player mentioned above spoke again and told his teammates to always remember, “Family first, because for some of us this is all we have and all we want. Thank you for seeing me for who I truly am and for loving me. I’m a better person because of all of you.”

And at that moment, for that player, we knew we accomplished our mission, and we knew we would do everything we could do to make sure other players would feel the same way at the end of their journey. In order to believe football is a game about life, not just Xs and Os we had to lead with actions first and let our words follow. We never hesitated to tell the team we loved them, and we made sure that each person’s why was known to the greater group as a way to build family.

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677