When "When then Game Stands Tall" opens in 3,000 theaters later this month, the rest of the world will know what two generations of De La Salle High School football players and their families have known all along: Bob Ladouceur is the coach you want to play for, and you want your sons to play for.
That’s where the conversation with Coach Bob Ladouceur picks up. He points out that some of the other coaches who have graduated from De La Salle are Eric Billeci at California High (San Ramon); Patrick Walsh at Serra (San Mateo); Vic Galli at Pittsburg.
Do you think these coaches carry with them some of what they learned here?
Definitely. It’s kind of hard to replicate what we do here due to the fact we've had such a consistent and strong coaching staff. Plus you can do things at De La Salle you just can't do at other schools, too, especially public schools.
Such as ...?
Prayer services, talk freely about your religious faith, beliefs and tenents; help develop kids on that level, too. There's a spirit to a team, and there’s a spirit to every person.
How’d Jim Caviezel do in portraying you in the movie?
I thought he did a good job. We’re fairly close outside of our roles. Personality wise, he’s a pretty quiet guy. Personality wise, we’re re pretty similar.
You think he got it?
Yes, he took the role very seriously. He believed in what he did here. He liked that. I’ve got to hand it to him: It’s tough to play a coach and make it believable. As athletes go and watch films about sports, I think they can be very critical and make the determination if that’s a realistic coach or not. I think he did a good job as how I coach or how I conducted myself. He didn’t add any schmaltz to it. Or overdramatize things. He just kind of plugged along in the film, and that’s kind of how I did things.
What’s the message you hope people walk out of theater with?
I’d like them to see football and sporting participation in a different light. It’s not just about performance or winning. It’s about development of a community of coming together, which is what we call a team, and all the dynamics that come into play in making one to be proud of. It takes a lot of discipline, sacrifice and work, respect and courtesy, all those things, for a team to thrive. That’s what we work for.
Courtesy is not often a word you hear in football …
Yeah, but it’s in keeping with the philosophy of the school. We operate from the school mission statement. It’s a great blueprint to come from.
After such great success as a high school coach, why didn’t you go elsewhere?
I started out working for the county juvenile detention facility. I didn’t see it going anywhere; didn’t see being able to make much of a difference. I applied for the job on a whim. Once I got into it. I felt I could do this job. I felt confident about it.
I felt like I was lucky I found something I was good at. A lot of it came natural to me; a lot of it was a struggle. But I was a quick learner. I had great background in football. I played for some great coaches. They were good teachers.
I knew the game pretty well. I was young. When the first season started I was 25. I felt confident that I could coach a lot of areas of the game and that paid off for me. As time went on, I learned by experience and a few college coaches I’d go to to find out a few things I needed to know. I feel I was lucky to find a profession that fit my talents. I think there are a lot of people who are lucky enough to do that, and a lot of people who never do find that. I consider myself lucky. I wouldn't have changed anything. I’ve never longed to do something different or go someplace else. I’ve always felt this was what I was meant to do. I thought I was doing some good things here. Why change that?
The combination of the football field, and religion ... how do those work together?
People say: “You teach religion and coach football,” as if those two don’t go together. I was really surprised by that. I don’t see any difference between what you teach and what you're doing on the field. I see them as very similar. Do you step into another phase of life, or activity, and strip your faith off, and leave all your religious beliefs behind? I think your religious faith is a part of you you carry everywhere you go. I didn’t see any type of inconsistency in the two aspects of the school I was involved in.
It is often said that some of your greatest success has been in the classroom. What do you enjoy about teaching?
I enjoyed being in the classroom, I got to meet a lot of kids and know a lot of kids who were not football players. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed getting to know a real cross-section of our students, the kids who were involved in other sports and not. I loved having the drama kids in class, the band members, the service learning kids. I liked all aspects of our student body. Some of my closest students, throughout my career here, weren’t even athletes. That was a change of pace that I really enjoyed being in the classroom and teaching religion.
What are some of those students doing today?
A lot of kids are getting into teaching. They get into public service. The ones who go into the business world come back to promote the school and help support the school. It's really nice to see them come back. Some of the kids we started off with … we’re even coaching their sons. That makes you feel a little old, but it’s kind of neat that you can teach two generations of a family.
What’s the most gratifying thing about coaching?
Our kids become very close to each other on our team. For the most part, they create a core of friends who will always be there for each other. I’ve seen that played out with the older generations of teams we’ve had. They had a shared experience that meant a lot of them and it bonded them for life. That’s the most gratifying thing of coaching, I think, being able to see that. We provided a place where that could take place. That’s a real victory for us.
Did you have a “Coach Lad” in your life?
I think I took a little bit from everybody who coached me, good and bad. Not employing the bad, but learn from it. I studied all my coaches because they were mentors. Conscious or unconscious, they became a big part of my life. I watched them every day. When I speak at clinics and I talk about young coaches just getting started in their coaching careers, one thing I tell them: Be careful what you say. These kids will remember it, good and bad, and how you conduct yourself. I’ve had things said to me throughout my life, good and bad, that I’ve remembered. I think it’s a huge responsibility. You’re put up in front of young people and you’ve got to be on every day. You’ve got to be cautious and careful about how you treat the responsibility.
There’s never one coach I’ve tried to emulate. I’ve always felt: Be yourself. Any attempt, in anything in life, any attempt at not being yourself fails miserably. You get discovered not being yourself. For good or bad, I always came out in front of a team: This is who I am. This is what I stand for. This is what I believe. This is how I’m going to treat you.
What did you learn from the young men over the years?
I learned that high school kids are capable of great things. They’re very resilient. I don’t think that’s exclusive to a high school kid, but they learn that about themselves in high school.
I took that from my own high school days. I didn’t know what I was capable of until I had mentors insisting that I could stretch myself and be better. At the time you push back on that and say, “I don’t know if I can,” but if you have someone there who says, “No, you can.” It may come off, from a student, as being hard on them, but from a coach’s point of view, it’s “I believe in you.”
You’re not going to push a student hard who doesn’t have the ability. You’re going to let them hit their ceiling and embrace it at that. A lot of kids can be so much more than they think they can. It’s a coach’s job to get them to that point. But you walk a fine line. I think a good coach can usually tell: This guy can be better.
What’s it like being an assistant coach?
It’s different. I’m an assistant to assistants. I didn’t take anybody’s job. I’m there as someone to bounce an idea off of, if they want it. Justin is an outstanding coach. He played for me and coached with us for 10 years. There’s nothing much I can add to what he’s doing. It’s fine with me. I’m proud of him. I feel he’s part of De La Salle legacy and he’s upholding that very well. I’m his biggest fan. It’s like having your own son out there, in many ways. You want to see him do very well.
Speaking of sons, you coached your son?
It was good and not-so-good. You really have to be a coach. The lines get blurred a little bit, father and coach. You’ve got to keep those separate. There were times when he probably wanted to have more of a role on the team than he did. He played. There were good times and not-so-good times. He handled it well. He understood I had to wear two different hats.
Aside from some issues of timing, is there a glaring moment in the movie when it doesn’t ring true?
I don’t think so. They intended to make this film as a triumph over adversity. A lot of people look at us and say, “How could they have any adversity?” The outside perception, especially locally, is that we lead a charmed life. You get that 151-game winning streak, and they think, “What do they have to complain about? They must have had everything they needed.” I think the film shows that’s not true: Everyone has tragedy, setbacks, bad things that happen in their lives. I think it’s a film about overcoming those things, and keep persevering.
Was Terrance Kelly’s story honored by the filmmakers?
Most definitely. Of all the things in the film, they nailed his person and his story well. They did it right.
Because he was a great leader, a great student … a very promising future. He meant a lot to the team, not just the team he played on but the team after he left. For a lot of those juniors, he was their captain. We didn’t really feel the effect of his passing until we got into the season. I never wanted to use Terrance as a motivator, ever. I thought it would be disrespectful. I wanted us to let’s just go, see how we do as a team. His death was just days before we started our first official practice as a team. There we are, loading up our bus to go his funeral as our first bus ride as a team. Those kids were shattered. … We forged ahead, and lo and behold, I think the outcome of that, not that the kids weren’t working, we started our season as 1-3-1 record. It took them a while to get out of that fog and find their own stride.
Did it seem strange to watch the movie being filmed?
We walked out on the set, Terry (Eidson, assistant coach) and I. It was nighttime. They were filming game action. I looked across the field: They had a team all dressed out as Pittsburg. They looked exactly like Pittsburg in their uniforms. On the other side, they had our uniforms on. They had everything duplicated to look like when we play each other. Then there’s Jim (Caviezel). He’s dressed in my coaching outfit right down to the glasses I wore then. It was just strange. It was like walking into a surrealistic world, like you’re in a movie. Literally.
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