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.
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.
When Sherman moved to the Cape in 2014 with his wife, Karen, and teenage daughter, Selena, the youngest of their five children, he didn’t plan on coaching high school football. He was just looking forward to settling down after a nearly 35-year grind of a career, enjoying the view of the Bass River from the house he had built in West Dennis, and going fishing on his boat, the Flea Flicker.
But he didn’t want to quit the game altogether—so in early 2015 he started looking into the possibility of starting a summer football camp for high schoolers. He called Nauset’s former football coach and newly hired assistant principal, Keith Kenyon, about possibly using the school’s field. “I see this out-of-state area code on my phone and I pick it up,” Kenyon recalls. “The guy on the other line says, ‘Hi, my name is Mike, and I’d like to talk about some football.’”
The two talked for a while before Kenyon—who’d recently stepped down as coach—threw a Hail Mary: “I told Mike about the opening,” he says. To his surprise—and excitement—Sherman didn’t flat-out say no. The courtship was on. Not that the sell had to be as hard as you might imagine. Sherman’s Massachusetts roots grow deeper than those of the oak trees at the George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park.
Born in 1954, Michael Francis Sherman was raised along with his four siblings among their extended family in Hyde Park. They lived with their parents on the third floor of his grandfather’s triple-decker on Oak Street. Sherman’s father worked for an insulation company and kept asbestos samples in the trunk of the family car. “The most important person in my life was my father,” he tells me. “He taught me about honesty and integrity.”
Sherman attended Boston Latin for seventh and eighth grade before the family moved to Northborough. There, he enrolled at Algonquin Regional High and became a star athlete on the track, wrestling, and football teams. Baseball pitcher Mark Fidrych—the flaky future rookie of the year with the Detroit Tigers—was in the class behind him, and the two became close friends. In the summers, Sherman would visit his grandparents at their place in Yarmouth on the Cape. He’d work out at the Dennis-Yarmouth High gym during the day and fall asleep at night listening to Ken Coleman calling Red Sox games on the radio. Yaz was his favorite player.
During his senior year, Sherman accepted a football scholarship to Central Connecticut State, where he earned four varsity letters and a degree in English and political science. His first job out of college was as an English teacher and assistant football coach at nearby Stamford High School. From there, he got sucked into the coaching vortex—and became addicted to the pressure, expectations, and, yes, winning. His next stop was Worcester Academy in Massachusetts before he jumped to colleges—Pittsburgh, Tulane, Holy Cross in the Gordie Lockbaum years, Texas A & M as offensive line coach under legend R.C. Slocum, and UCLA, followed by A & M again. He never set out to become an NFL head coach: “I just thought to myself, I want to be the best I can at what I am right now, and if I do that, opportunities will present themselves.”
He was right. In 1997—a comet in the cozy coaching ranks—Sherman accepted Mike Holmgren’s offer to coach tight ends for the Packers. He held the job for two years before following his boss to Seattle as offensive coordinator. In 2000, despite having only three years of NFL experience, Sherman became Green Bay’s head coach, and a year later took on the added title of general manager. The press called him Holmgren’s “detail oriented” and “disciplinarian” protégé. The Packers thrived offensively under Sherman, breaking single-season team records in passing and rushing, and QB Favre maintained his dominance, leading the league in touchdown throws in 2003.
Despite Green Bay’s regular-season success under Sherman, his teams never advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs. The cheese-eating masses, watching Favre’s prime years dwindle, grew impatient. Sherman was fired in 2006 after the team, sabotaged by injuries, went 4–12. It was his only losing year, and Green Bay’s first in 14 seasons.
Next, the coaching carousel spun Sherman to the Houston Texans for two seasons as an assistant coach, before he moved back to College Station, Texas, where he became head coach of a backsliding A & M program. Each year his record improved, from 4–8 in 2008, to 6–7 the next year, to 9–4 and a Cotton Bowl berth the next. But he was fired in 2011 because coaches who get paid $1.8 million a year in the Blazing Hotbed of Football are expected to perform instant miracles—not gradual ones—and to beat archenemy Texas. He had done neither.
Sherman’s parting gift to A & M was the redshirt freshman and future Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, whom Sherman helped coax out of a verbal commitment to Oregon. Just before Christmas, a few weeks after his dismissal, Sherman wrote a remarkably earnest, 4,300-word Jerry Maguire manifesto to the high school coaches of Texas, thanking them for opening their doors to him on recruiting visits, and offering his advice. In it he preached for them to “be honest but positive,” “embrace your players,” “break down barriers.”
He closed with a flourish: “This ‘game’ also has the ability to bring out the very best in us at times as well as the very worst in us at times. Here is hoping that it brings out the very best in each and every one of us all the time.”
Sherman returned to the NFL as offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2012, but was let go after two seasons. At that point, his wife, Karen, decided she was finished moving around. It was time to settle down, to go back to his home of Massachusetts. The couple decided on West Dennis, where Sherman had spent so many summers as a kid, and where they had often brought their children on vacation.
That’s how Sherman wound up on the Cape being recruited for the Nauset coaching job. Yet it was Karen who convinced him to accept. “She told me, ‘How do you know that you were meant to coach the Green Bay Packers? Maybe you were meant to be the coach here. Even if you’re making a difference in just one or two kids’ lives, you’re making a difference,’” Sherman confided.
Every man has an ego, though, and after the heights he had reached in his profession, taking the job at the most out-of-the-way high school in Massachusetts—where the closetlike coach’s office comes furnished with wobbly cafeteria chairs, and the locker room ought to be hashtagged #1980—would be a blow, no matter how noble the intent. Or, as Jacob Hirschberger, Nauset’s tight end and linebacker, put it, “To go down from where he once was and coach a bunch of high school kids who don’t know what the heck they’re doing, it’s tough.” Then he added, “But it means something.”
When Nauset’s preseason football workouts began, the school’s star baseball player, Mike Doherty, didn’t much know or care. That is, until the last Saturday morning in August, when he received a mysterious text from Nauset’s assistant principal, Keith Kenyon, asking him to show up at the school in a couple of hours for an important sports meeting. When Doherty arrived, he found himself joined by a pair of baseball teammates and two of the school’s top basketball players.
Kenyon, flanked by the athletic director and the baseball and basketball coaches, told them they were being recruited to join the football team. He said: We need you. We need leaders. Do it for your school. Do it for a chance to be coached by one of the best.
At the end, Sherman dramatically walked into the room to make the closing pitch. They were asked to make a decision within a week. The boys went home and group-texted to discuss. One basketball player wasn’t interested. One baseball player didn’t want to injure himself. Senior third baseman Sam Majewski was the first to say yes. Doherty and the remaining basketball player then joined as well.
The first practice was a tsunami for the 6-foot, 220-pound Doherty. Unsure how to put on his equipment, he watched the other players get ready in the locker room. The coaches positioned him at guard, but they might as well have dropped him in a space suit on Mars. “We were protecting screens in practice, and I went up to Coach Sherman and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Doherty told me. “He paused, then he gave me a look like, ‘This kid’s never blocked for a screen? You’ve got to be kidding me!’”
Within a week, the basketball player had quit, leaving just Doherty and the tall, fleet-footed Majewski, who was playing linebacker. Either one could have walked away without shame, but they didn’t, subjecting themselves to the losses, Sherman’s grueling demands, and the abject terror of playing for such a towering figure. “I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Majewski said to me, regarding his decision to stay on the team.
It certainly would.
It’s less than a week removed from the September blowout loss to Cardinal Spellman when Sherman drives his hardtop Jeep Cherokee to the grass practice field, which is set more than a quarter-mile from the school. The sun is already hidden behind the pines, and the players are grimy, exhausted, and ready to head home for dinner and homework. But before they escape to the locker room, the coach calls them over to his vehicle.
The season has started poorly for the Warriors. They played their first game at home against the top-ranked team in western Massachusetts, East Longmeadow, whose senior running back, Mike Maggipinto, came into the year aiming to break the state’s career rushing record. The Nauset stands were crammed with fans eager to find out if the school’s lovable football misfits had been somehow miraculously transformed under Sherman, like in a Disney movie. They got their answer immediately, when East Longmeadow returned the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown. The Warriors lost 42–7. Then came Cardinal Spellman, which ended with a similar result.
As the boys reach the coach behind his vehicle, they see a metal wastebasket on the ground next to his feet. The smell of gasoline wafts around them.
“Don’t hold onto the losses,” he tells them, grabbing a pile of notebooks and tossing them into the trash can. “You have to live in the present.”
Sherman then takes file folders, Bible-thick with scouting reports and game plans, and throws them in. Then some game tapes. He balls up the shirt he wore before the Cardinal Spellman game. Thunk—into the can.
Sherman lights a match and throws it in. A flame shoots into the air, almost high enough to singe his white eyebrows.
“We got the message,” Van Vleck tells me later. “He wanted us to move on.”
The next day, in the homecoming game against Sandwich, the ploy looks ingenious—at first. The Warriors take a 6–0 lead early in the first quarter on a Van Vleck quick pitch to running back Atkinson, who sprints 7 yards into the end zone. The crowd of 400 or so fans on the Nauset bleachers jump to their feet. A cowbell rings. It’s the team’s first lead of the season! The cheerleaders look at one another for a second, then dust the cobwebs off their post-touchdown cheer.
“Get! Those! Extra points!”
The kick is good. Five plays later, though, Sandwich answers with a touchdown. Then another. Then another. And then another. By early in the third, the enemy is up 27–7. Nauset gamely counters in the fourth with a desperate comeback, as Van Vleck and McGough connect on scoring passes of 51 and 54 yards, but the deficit is just too great, and time too short. Final tally: 27–20. The Nauset players trudge off the field, heads bowed.
That’s when Sherman, left to dissect another loss, comes to a realization: It’s not the kids who need to move on from the past—it’s him. He has been too fixated on winning. He has to remind himself that he’s not at A & M or Green Bay anymore.
Instead, he’s on Cape Cod, with a team of kids so green that some didn’t know what a screen pass or flea flicker was when the season started. A team so bereft of talent that he’d snagged upperclassmen from the baseball and basketball teams who had never played the game. A team so scant in numbers that they don’t have enough kids to field a JV squad. Sherman realizes that if he doesn’t make the practices more fun and the experience more educational for the kids, he’s failing them and himself.
So he decides to follow his own advice and pour gasoline on his old priorities as a bigtime coach, and throw a match on them. From now on, each week of practice will carry with it a theme—like overcoming adversity, perseverance, or attention to detail. “I was going to accomplish something, no matter what,” he tells me.
What won’t change is Sherman’s commitment. He’ll keep preparing each week as if Nauset is in the running for the state championship—or as if he’s coaching in the Cotton Bowl or NFC Championship Game. He’ll still obsessively spend hour upon waking hour scripting practices, breaking down films of opponents, even studying NFL games to learn new tricks on offense and defense, and of course plotting his next life lesson for the players. It’s the only way he knows how to work. He hopes this quiet example and unwavering dedication will be his greatest lesson.
A video camera shadows Sherman at nearly every game, usually close enough that he could punch it if he wanted to. Yet he never seems aware of it. Cameras are nothing new to him. This particular camera is held by a man from a documentary film company hired by NBC to capture the season and turn it into a series of shorts posted on the network’s website. A crew from NFL Films has also paid the Warriors a visit, as has one from CBS This Morning. Reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN have both made the trek to the Outer Cape at different times as well.
We know what angle they’re looking for: a story about a fall from grace, and redemption; a story of Bad News underdogs rallying for a coach on the last stop of his career—and pulling off an impossible win. It’s a great story. But in order to tell it, the Warriors are going to have to beat somebody. Anybody. Enter the Lakers of Silver Lake.
The Friday night lights are burning above Nauset’s home field on this balmy late-October evening, and the NBC camera is circling Sherman like a deer fly. Tonight is supposed to be The Night, the night when 0–7 Nauset might finally have—at least—a chance to win. The Warriors are playing the Lakers, winners of only one game.
So far, each time the Warriors have lined up against another team this season, they’ve looked a few inches shorter, a few pounds lighter, a step slower. In practices, their scout teams are mostly scrawny freshmen who can’t come close to preparing the starters for the 200-pound linemen and 5 o’clock shadow–growing running backs of their real opponents. The roster is so thin, Sherman is forced to play three-quarters of the Nauset starters on both offense and defense—an exhausting proposition.
The difference in physical makeup between teams had never been more apparent than when the Warriors went on the road against the number one team in the state, Marshfield, in mid-October. With 2:26 to go in the first quarter, Nauset found itself down 29–0. To add further insult, the PA announcer kept mispronouncing Van Vleck’s name, calling him “Van Velk.” Marshfield emptied its bench after the half, which kept the final score to a sportsmanlike 36–8. The result in the next game, against the Durfee Hilltoppers, was no better, as the Warriors lost 31–7.
Meanwhile, the cameras have kept rolling, capturing one embarrassing loss after another. Tonight, at Silver Lake, the NBC cameraman begins shooting the pregame speech as the coach tells the kids to play their hearts out.
The kids seem to heed his command—though only about 150 fans have come to see the game. From the start, Silver Lake can’t stop the offensive combination of Van Vleck and McGough, and at halftime Nauset holds a 21–14 lead. On top of playing wide receiver, McGough is also a defensive back and the punt returner. Tonight, he is taking field goals and extra points in place of the regular kicker, who’s out with an injury.
With 5:01 left in the third quarter, Van Vleck finds his favorite receiver again, on a 30-yard touchdown pass. But McGough misses the extra point, leaving the score at 27–14. The fourth quarter arrives, and by this time, the Nauset players are hunched over between snaps, hands on thighs, chests heaving. With 7:15 to go, Silver Lake scores on a quarterback keeper: 27–21. The Warriors shave three minutes off the clock on offense afterward, but barely move the ball and punt. On the ensuing drive, the Nauset defense holds, and Silver Lake faces a fourth and 4 at the Warrior 45-yard line. The clock ticks: 1:06, 1:05, 1:04.
Sherman calls time-out and the team huddles around him, with the NBC camera there, capturing the moment. He tells them, “This is for the win. You just need to make one last play.”
But the Warriors don’t have one more play in them. The Silver Lake quarterback takes the snap and completes an implausibly deep pass to a receiver on the far side of the field, all the way to the 9-yard line. Two plays later, with 29 seconds left, Silver Lake scores to take the lead at 28–27. Nauset loses again.
Afterward, Sherman calls his devastated players into the far end zone, away from the fans and families. Some wipe tears as he speaks—and all the while, the camera continues to roll. “When you invest a lot in something and it doesn’t work out the way you want it to,” he says to them, softly but with brutal frankness, “it’s supposed to hurt.”
Despite the losses, heartbreak, and—yes—the embarrassment of the season, the kids have embraced their slice of fame, and Sherman has been surprisingly hospitable to the media. Not necessarily because he enjoys the publicity, but for Nauset and the football program.
Nauset desperately needs the attention, thanks to the Massachusetts school-choice law. Passed in 1991 as a way of encouraging schools to improve themselves through competition, the law allows parents to send their kids to any school district in the state outside of their own—and forces the sending district to pay the cost. As a result, high schools on the Cape have been locked in a death match against one another for nearly 25 years, competing for students and the money they bring with them.
The Cape’s big winner has consistently been Nauset. Last year, its school system netted 226 out-of-district kids in the middle and high schools, bringing with them roughly $1.3 million in added revenue. One of the biggest losers is next-door neighbor Dennis-Yarmouth, which lost a net 255 students, and doled out $1.55 million in out-of-district tuition.
The way Cape high schools keep ahead of their rivals is by maintaining a higher profile—for their sports programs, afterschool activities, and academic achievement. Dennis-Yarmouth resorts to running ads on local radio extolling its virtues. For Nauset, Sherman isn’t just a big fish in the school-choice wars—he’s Moby frickin’ Dick. It seems only natural that the area’s top-line football players would begin to take advantage of the chance to be coached by him. Kids on the team have heard whispers—true or not—that a talented running back from off-Cape already plans to attend in the fall.
But that’s next year. Meanwhile, the Warriors’ season grinds toward its end. Frost forms on the grass in the mornings now, and Sherman keeps the players on the practice field well into the dark. They’re crisper in their drills, more efficient, faster, and Sherman asks more out of their performance while demanding the same full effort. The original roster has shrunk from 41 on the first day of practice in August to just 23 now. Most of these kids will never play organized ball again. But they’ll tell their own kids that they shared a coach with Brett Favre. When they talk to you about Sherman, you can tell they’re still terrified of him, and love him, and are desperate to please him.
Finally—after the reporters have gone, and most of the fans, as well as all hope—it comes. In the second week of November, the Warriors finally earn a victory, over winless Pembroke, 24–14. Afterward, Sherman smiles alongside his players as he addresses them in the gym. “That game out there was just like our season, a lot of bumps in the road. But we kept getting up. You guys stuck together.” He adds, “Our record doesn’t dictate what we are. We dictate what we are.”
As the kids make their way to the locker room, Sherman tells them to enjoy the night, but not to celebrate too hard or get into trouble. It’s a thoughtful moment. He speaks like a father, like someone who cares.
Somewhat fittingly for the Warriors, they lose their final game, on Thanksgiving, in spectacular fashion to Dennis-Yarmouth, 42–8. Yet the next Monday, to Sherman’s surprise, he spots Van Vleck and a handful of other players in the Nauset gym after school, already working out and preparing for next year—an example of unwavering dedication. They’re learning. The first practice in August will no doubt go much differently next time.
The players who return in the fall will be stronger, more experienced, and more skilled than they were this season. They may even be joined by a handful of new, out-of-district teammates. You can imagine that in a few years, after word gets out, Sherman could build a winning program here. Maybe even a power-house.
If he does, the opportunities will be different. So will the lessons. Only through losing did Sherman alter his coaching style and—maybe unwittingly—begin to better resemble the kind of man he urged the Texas high school coaches to be. Only through losing did the boys of Nauset High discover that you can try your hardest every day to better yourself without needing to be the best. In the process, maybe a life was changed—for a future firefighter, teacher, business owner, parent, soldier—in a way that few others their age would understand. Maybe this truly was Sherman’s calling, as his wife, Karen, openly wondered—and not being coach of the Green Bay Packers.
No, sometimes you just can’t give a damn about winning.
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