Former Handley standout putting football teams through military paces

By ROBERT NIEDZWIECKI | The Winchester Star 
Jul 21, 2017
WINCHESTER — Most of James Wood High School’s varsity and JV football players were focused on taking a quick breather after finishing up the second of their six multi-faceted 100-yard sprints on Thursday, but their attention was quickly redirected.
“No fallen comrades!” screamed one of the instructors from the Virginia Army National Guard. “Are you going to leave one of your teammates behind?”
With a couple of their teammates still struggling to finish the 25-yard bear crawl portion of the sprint, the Colonels who were done ran out to them to offer encouragement and help them make their way toward the end-zone finish line closest to the fieldhouse at Kelican Stadium.
“Never leave a fallen comrade” is the last of the four parts of the Army Warrior Ethos that was shared minutes before by Staff Sgt. T.J. Clarke — a 31-year-old local recruiter for the Virginia Army National Guard — during Thursday’s 90-minute military-themed football clinic that focused on physical work and life lessons.
Clarke is a 2004 Handley graduate and a former football, basketball and baseball player for the Judges (he was an All-Northwestern District linebacker and catcher as a senior). He played one year of football at Shepherd University before a shoulder injury turned him toward a life in the military.
Clarke moved back to Winchester in March from Morgantown, W.Va., where he had lived for the majority of the past six years. (Clarke also earned his bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University in 2011.)
It was while was in Morgantown that he met Sgt. 1st Class Todd Farrar, who told him about the football clinics featuring military values and training that he conducted in Ohio.
For the past four years Clarke has been conducting his own high school football clinics in West Virginia, and he wanted to introduce them to Virginia when he moved back.
With Virginia High School League teams set to have their first official day of practice on July 31, Clarke reached out to James Wood to set up a clinic with the Colonels in June. He also has a clinic scheduled with Sherando (on July 27). Clarke also is trying to work out a date with Handley.
“We bring out the importance of teamwork and work ethic, and just try and put them on the right step for the season coming up,” said Clarke, who was joined by six other men from the National Guard on Thursday. “We want to test their mental and physical capacity, essentially.”
They certainly accomplished that mission.
On a day in which James Wood first-year football coach Ryan Morgan said the temperatures reached 95 degrees when he looked at a thermometer (the clinic began shortly after 5 p.m.), Clarke explained to the nearly 60 football players that they wanted to keep them safe.
They wouldn’t go more than 15 minutes without a water break, and if the players felt light-headed, they should stop. Clarke also implied the players better take advantage of those water breaks.
“We’re going to do a lot of running, and a little bit of yelling,” Clarke said. “I’m going to put you through hell.”
In the warm-up session, the National Guard had the players line up along the goal line. Clarke explained to them that they had to have their arms spread out to their sides, so that they were fingertip-to-fingertip, and keep them up.
At first, some of the players weren’t lining up at the proper distance from each other and weren’t keeping their arms up, so they had to do push-ups until Clarke gave them another chance to get it right.
“It was just setting the tone and seeing if they were paying attention [to my instructions],” Clarke said. “If they dropped their arms, they weren’t listening, so were going to give them a little punishment for it.”
Elijah Filbert, a senior defensive end, tight end and a cousin of Clarke’s, said Clarke told him a couple of days ago that the clinic was going to be “fun but tough” and Filbert thought that exercise showed that James Wood better be ready to work.
“Holding our arms like that while standing in line burned the most,” said Filbert, who had 33 tackles and three sacks last year. “It just really got to you. It’s one of those simple things you think is going to be easy, and then when you start to do it, you realize just how tough it is.”
After stressing attention to detail during the stretching session, Clarke led the team on a few warm-up laps in which the players repeated back the phrases that Clarke yelled at them, including “When my granny was 92/she did PT better than you.”
Clarke then broke the rest of the clinic down into four quarters, and the players were divided into four groups as part of a four-station circuit.
These sessions involved multiple styles of push-ups, squats (including one in which they held five-gallon jugs of water over their head), up-downs, running while carrying a teammate on their back, and the combination 100-yard sprints (25 yards each of regular sprints, bear crawls, backpedals and high-knees). The day concluded with team relays, in which each member of the four groups first ran 25 yards and back, handed off a football, ran 50 yards and back, handed off, and ran 100 yards and back before handing off.
Perhaps more important than the physical work was the words that Clarke used in between those sessions.
Clarke started off by telling the players that there are still things he learned from Handley that he uses in his life right now, and told them that they should respect what their coaches are doing for them.
“They’re sacrificing their time to come out here and be with you guys,” Clarke said. “Why do they do that? They’re dedicated. They want to teach you how to be young men. They want to mold you guys. The best thing you guys can do to pay them back is to come out here and bust your [butt] every day.”
During each talk, Clarke brought the players into the discussion by asking them to provide examples of the things he was talking about. For example, after the second session Clarke spoke about the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
After the third session, he encouraged some of the seniors to talk about their goals. And during the fourth and final session, they didn’t need a reminder about supporting their comrades.
Players cheered on their teammates throughout the relay, and when one group was finished, they cheered on other groups. Everyone came out to push on sophomore running back William Crowder, the Conference 21 West 100-meter champion in the spring who was the last runner to go for the last-place group.
“This workout was probably one of the best examples of leadership I’ve seen all summer,” Filbert said.
“[This] brings out new leaders,” said senior Josh Kesner, one of the three players in the mix for starting quarterback this year. “You want to get the workout finished, and you can’t get the workout finished without everybody doing it.”
Filbert said their instructors helped motivate them to push harder.
“When you have all these sergeants yelling at you, it really pushes you to bring out who you are,” Filbert said. “The things we did today show that our team really cares about each other. When you have that brotherhood, you can really move forward as a team and do well.”
And their instructors didn’t just yell. Clad in camouflage pants and boots, they sprinted with them, and sometimes tried to knock the ball away from them during the relay.
All in all, Morgan said he was definitely glad his team had Thursday’s experience.
“It’s something different,” Morgan said. “Sometimes it helps to see some different faces, and I thought it would be good to challenge them. I knew those Army guys were not going to go easy on them.
“And I thought it brought out some leadership, which is kind of what I was hoping for. There were some guys who fell off a little bit [because of the intensity of the workout], and we had some guys step up to bring the team along. The better teams I’ve seen are going to cheer on their teammates and help them out. The military is going to encourage that, and that’s good for a football team.”
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