Trowbridge: Coach's speech turns tough playoff loss into teaching moment

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Belvidere North's head coach Jeff Beck talks to his team in the second quarter of their Class 6A playoff game against Grayslake Central on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Belvidere North High School in Belvidere. Grayslake Central beat Belvidere North, 27-22.

The best NFL coaches teach their sport.

The best high school coaches use their sport to teach life. That’s one of the reasons sports are such an integral part of the high school experience.

Friday could have been one of the most frustrating nights in the football lives of the Belvidere North Blue Thunder. The players will probably never forget their 27-22 loss to Grayslake Central. And that’s a good thing — as long as they also remember what coach Jeff Beck told them after the game.

North had survived a couple of questionable penalties to trail Grayslake Central by five points but was about to get the ball back at the Grayslake 32 after Lucas Gamble broke up a fourth-and-7 pass with three minutes to play. And then a late flag from an official 30 yards away fluttered to the ground. Gamble’s play — which looked perfectly timed on TV replays — was ruled pass interference. Grayslake kept the ball and ran out the clock as angry yells emanated from the Belvidere North stands.

More:How one late fourth-down play decided Belvidere North's playoff fate

But not in the post-game huddle. The first thing Beck told his players was that focusing on that controversial call would be “selfish.”

“You are going to feel a lot of disappointment in your life,” he said. “It’s about the way you handle it. Be thankful for the time we had together. If you don’t, you are being selfish.”

Beck encouraged his players to walk away treasuring the lifelong friendships they made playing on the team, not one disappointing result. He reminded them they were part of the community, not individual players.

That’s the part of his talk that resonated the most with sophomore running back Nico Bertolino, who ran for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

Belvidere North's Aaron Winters tackles Grayslake Central's Luca Maravola in the first quarter of their Class 6A playoff game on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Belvidere North High School in Belvidere. Grayslake Central beat Belvidere North, 27-22.

“I like what he said about returning to the community,” Bertolino said. “We’re all a family here, so we have to stick together, no matter what. You can’t be selfish. You always have to think of your team. It’s the team player that strikes home to me. As long as we come together and create a bond with our teammates, we stay strong together and are able to do amazing things.”

Beck also said he didn’t have “a magic wand” to erase the pain of this loss. But he didn’t need to. He said the bond the team had formed was stronger than any defeat. And more important.

He didn’t want his seniors to walk off the football field for the last time feeling angry. He wanted them feeling like family. Now and forever.

“I am really hard on myself all the time, in school, football and baseball,” senior quarterback Mason Weckler said. “All the little things, I get stressed about and put myself down. He wants me to keep myself up. If disappointments come in life, you just have to brush them off and keep going.

“He is always there for me. He’s been there for me since I was a little kid. It’s almost like having a second dad. He’s got my back tonight. And he’s always going to have my back for the rest of my life.”

Playoff scores:Where and when Rockford-area teams play in the IHSA football playoffs

Star linebacker/tight end Aaron Winters also called Beck a father figure.

“He’s a great mentor to me,” Winters said. “He’s helped me become the person I am.”

That won’t stop after graduation. Beck recently was chatting with former Blue Thunder running back Scott Hornick, who is now training to become a Marine pilot. Hornick reminisced about several things Beck used to talk about. Hornick thinks about that every day.

“He’s a man — not a kid any more," Beck said, "and he is still thinking about some of the things we talked about."

Beck said his goal, even more than winning football games, is to help his players grow up to become great husbands and fathers.

The only two NIC-10 football coaches to win multiple state titles — former Belvidere coach Vern Pottinger and former Boylan coach Dan Appino — were also great at teaching more than Xs and Os.

Many of our high school coaches are.

“I got into education because i wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of kids like my coaches had on me,” Beck said. “I know not every kid is not going to be perfect and walk out of our program being fully matured, but if we can be just a small, little part of helping them mature, we are doing our jobs.”

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge