Mike Sherman’s Fifth Quarter

After 33 years coaching NFL and college all-stars, former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman wasn’t sure he had much to learn from a bunch of high school football players on the Cape. He was wrong.
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Mike Sherman’s commitment to his Nauset Warriors never wavered, despite winning only one game during the season. / Photograph by Tim Kennedy

It’s a Saturday morning in mid-September, and Mike Sherman is profoundly disappointed. The night before, his Nauset Regional High School Warriors lost on the road to the Cardinal Spellman Cardinals, 44–6.

“My purpose is to be here and lead you guys,” he tells his team. “I get up every day with that goal in mind.” Originally from Hyde Park, Sherman stands at the front of the school auditorium and speaks in a somber voice so low, you need to lean forward to hear it. Embedded in his words is a slight Boston accent, softened by time and travels, but still there.

“Your purpose,” he continues, “is to be a great brother, a great son, to be spiritually the best you can be. And to be the best football player you can be. I’m not seeing that yet.”

Once, Sherman stood at the pinnacle of one of the highest-profile, most pressure-filled professions in America: He was head coach of the Green Bay Packers, owner of a career 59–43 record in six NFL seasons. Surely you remember him—a snowy-blond-haired polar bear of a man, he wore wire-rimmed glasses and a green sweatshirt with a white-and-gold “G” for Green Bay on the left side of his chest. You’d see him on national TV, the offensive savant, pointing to a white laminated play card, conferring with his quarterback, Brett Favre.

But that was then. Now the 61-year-old is coaching high school football on the sea-swept forearm of Cape Cod, where the kids are better practiced at prying open an oyster than a playbook. And even with the millions of dollars he’s made in his years of glory, he can’t seem to buy a victory.

Less than 12 hours after the loss to Spellman, Sherman is still smarting, and so are his exasperated assistants. On the fourth snap of the game, the Cardinals executed a classic counter play—one that Nauset practiced defending dozens of times during the week. Running back Jake O’Kelly faked right, then took a handoff to the left, as two guards pulled in front of him. He easily broke past the off-balance and overmatched Warriors line, as his blockers deflected the defensive backs like rag dolls, allowing O’Kelly to sprint 59 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

The Cardinals went on to run the exact same play three more times, and gain another 186 yards.

“I could chew everyone out, but that wouldn’t make us a better team,” Sherman tells his players. Instead he lists the team’s shortcomings: no leadership, no unity, no attention to detail. He promises his expectations won’t waver, nor will his commitment. “This is not a part-time job for me,” says Sherman, who donated his coach’s salary—all $5,497 of it—back to the school’s football program. “You can’t coach football part time. You can’t play football part time, either. This is no different for me than if it’s the Green Bay Packers.”

He then tells them about his 2004 Packers, a team that was battered by off-field hardships and started the season 1–4. But they won their next six games and ended with a 10–6 record and the NFC North title. They were only the ninth team in league history to lose four of its first five games and still make the playoffs.

Sometimes, though, you just shouldn’t give a damn about winning—even if there are no moral victories in football. Even if the coach is Sherman, winner of three NFC North titles. Scratch that, especially if it’s Sherman. Instead, during Sherman’s first season on the Cape, there are lessons to be learned—for the kids, and for him.

 

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Sherman took over as head coach of the Nauset Regional High School team in 2015. / Photograph by Tim Kennedy

Rewind to the team’s first practice, in August 2015. Tourists are hauling their Coleman coolers and boogie boards onto the beach a half-mile down the road for the day, while the Warriors warm up on the school’s artificial turf. Dressed in shorts and pads, most of the boys are so skinny that they look like life-size bobbleheads in their black-and-gold helmets.

The morning sun has begun to burn off a quilt of fog, revealing a crown of scrubpine forest. Nauset, with a student body of more than 1,000, is the only high school in the East that sits directly on national parkland. The school hides within the Cape Cod National Seashore by Nauset Light Beach, in the belt buckle of an enrollment district that stretches 40 miles across six towns, from Brewster to the tip of Provincetown. Its open campus, a huddle of nine weathered concrete buildings connected by a central courtyard, looks more suited for California than Eastham, Massachusetts.

“Blue 88, Blue 88. Set, hut hut!” the quarterback shouts, calling for the snap. A cluster of chaos ensues. The quarterback trips over his own feet on the turf. On the next play, the center snaps the ball over the quarterback’s head. Handoffs are fumbled, routine passes dropped.

“Whoa! Whoa! Get in the ballgame! C’mon!” Sherman yells at the boys. “When you’re here, you’ve got to be 100 percent here, in the moment! Make sure we focus on what we’re doing!”

Sherman and his coaches have some work to do. “A lot of these kids are missing natural instincts for the game,” he tells me later.

This group of misfits—from a working-class community of oystermen, firefighters, waitresses, real estate agents, and the rest of those who make up the year-round population on the Cape—are now Sherman’s army. What they lack in instincts, they compound with inexperience. The Warriors lost 22 seniors from last year’s squad, which stumbled to a 3–8 season, punctuated by a 52–0 loss on Thanksgiving to archrival Dennis-Yarmouth. This year’s version is excruciatingly young as a result, made up of mostly juniors and sophomores.

Nauset High doesn’t have much of a football history, either. There’s no marching band. No banners hang above the gym commemorating successful seasons. In fact, the school didn’t even field a football team until 1996, and in 2010 it seriously considered killing the program to spend the money on sports teams and activities that actually, you know, win. The boys’ soccer team, for instance, is usually one of the best in the state. So is the swim team. The band and music programs earn gold medals at competitions across the country, and have thrust upon the world—for better or worse—the pop star Meghan Trainor, class of 2012. Nauset High kids are, on average, wicked smart, too, usually scoring in the top tier on standardized tests.

A few players do stand out. Junior Travis Van Vleck, who played some quarterback his sophomore year, can scramble, and he seems—to the untrained eye—to have some touch on his passes. Senior receiver Sam McGough is the team’s best athlete. He can outrun the secondary and is the only kid who consistently catches the ball. Junior running back Akeem Atkinson looks quick and strong. But they’re not enough. My initial impression is that this team can’t win a game—even if Vince Lombardi himself were coaching.

Sherman suddenly stops practice and tells everyone to freeze. “We’re going to be a team with fanatical effort,” he yells. “Repeat after me: fanatical effort.”

“Fanatical effort,” the kids mumble.

“What?” the coach yells, louder, exasperated.

“Fanatical effort,” the kids say again, a little louder.