When you're in the middle of your third round of bear crawl drills on a July afternoon in Missouri -- a day when the go-to topic of conversation is "the gosh-darn heat" -- you are in pain.
This isn't the kind of pain you experience during regular exercise. It's not the burn of one last rep at the gym, or the exhaustion of the final sprint of a morning jog. This is, without a doubt, some version of agony -- the sort of discomfort that has fight-or-flight mechanisms firing in your brain. Ask any player on Bob Schembre's Panthers: This team's Hell Week is, true to its name, hellish.
As unintuitive as it might sound, the physical demands of the Panthers' Hell Week aren't really designed to make the boys physically ready to play. You just can't gain all that much muscle over the course of a week. You just can't gain all that much speed. That sort of growth takes a more substantial amount of time. Coach Bob -- taking all appropriate safety precautions -- pushes his players to the edge because he knows that this team is a little different: They're part of the East Missouri Homeschool Football Program.
That's right -- homeschool. Unlike their opponents, the Panthers don't step onto the practice field chatting about the day's math class; their respective math classes occur in relative isolation. They don't make water break small talk by retelling jokes from the cafeteria; these guys eat lunch in entirely different corners of the region. The Panthers enter Hell Week, for the most part, as acquaintances, and in a few cases, as total strangers.
This is why Coach Bob believes that his team actually "needs Hell Week more than most." This is why he can be overheard at practice yelling, "You're playing like individuals, gentleman. Play like a team." Football doesn't just require camaraderie; it requires trust. Trust is the glue that prevents the entire system from collapsing on both sides of the ball. And on day one, the Panthers just don't know each other well enough to trust one another. They don't have the shared experience of surviving high school.
So, when it comes down to it, Coach Bob doesn't really care if his players come out of Hell Week bigger, better and faster. Sure, everyone needs to get into shape before the season opener, but improving conditioning is a relatively straightforward process. The real priority, and the trickier undertaking here in Valley Park, Missouri, is building the bonds of brotherhood. And the fastest way to do that is to have the boys do something definitively difficult, definitively together.
Welcome to Hell Week.
Andy McCormick and Jake Shepard are two of the homeschoolers who played on the Panthers last year. They have been best friends for as long as they can remember, and are so inseparable that Jake has his own room at Andy's house even though he lives with his family just down the road. When they aren't playing football, they're sketching out their future business plan of buying and selling cars. On their drive to practice, they listen to music at a volume that threatens the very structural integrity of the vehicle. They sleep late and are messy in that special way only males between the ages of 15-18 are messy. Andy and Jake are, in essence, typical American teenagers.
It's really only when you talk to them about football that the best friends reveal themselves as unordinary -- or perhaps more accurately, a little extraordinary. Where you might find apathy in some teens, the boys display a passion that is humbled by a sense of duty. Where you might expect to find a bit of classic adolescent selfishness, they tend to assert sincere belief in their purpose as individuals sacrificing for something bigger.
Conversations with Andy and Jake are reminiscent of that famous scene in Bull Durham, when the young pitcher played by Tim Robbins is taught to say all the "right things" to reporters. But not for a minute do you get the sense that Andy and Jake may not mean something they say.
The same is true for the team's only brothers, Jeremy and Jacob Heisserer, and middle linebacker Michael Wagner. Ask any of them something like, "How do you continue working through those moments you want to quit?" you're met with a look of incredulousness. And that's when it dawns on you that they simply don't think about it in those terms. The question of "how" never gets asked internally because the question of "why" has already been confidently answered, as all of these boys have been through Coach Bob's Hell Week once before.
"The guy next to me isn't giving up. Why would I?"
Bob Schembre is an ex-Navy guy who speaks with the calm of someone who knows who he is and where he derives meaning from. But while Bob is a practicing Christian in the traditional sense, faith and fulfillment for him seem to live on the football field.
He's most known around these parts for fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing college football at the ripe age of 51 -- "better late than never." He takes the game gravely seriously, although he never forgets that it is, of course, just a game. Coach Bob is living and dying with every snap, but only because football can serve as a means to a much larger and more consequential end. You get the sense that he couldn't care less about his team's win-loss record. He is invested, as he will often tell you, in "using football as a vehicle to teach."
His team's de facto curriculum is full of subjects like discipline, duty and loyalty. When Coach Bob talks about the difference between a boy and a man, what he's really talking about is some version of sticktoitiveness. He teaches his players that some of the great rewards in life come from doing things you don't really want to do.
The story of the Central Panthers doesn't so much prove any inherent value of football in America, or sports in general. Rather, the story is illustrative of how sports, when in the right hands, are one of the greatest teaching instruments we've got.
But what's also worth remembering is that this whole thing almost didn't happen. Coach Bob was out of ideas of how to fund the team before he heard about the DICK'S Sporting Goods Foundation Sports Matter Program. He says that although he was absolutely determined to "give these boys a chance to play this game and learn great life lessons from it... looking back, there is no way we could have done it without DICK'S."
The Central Panthers are, after all, a homeschool football team. They aren't affiliated with an institution, public or private. There just aren't proper systems in place to give homeschooled kids the same extracurricular benefits as regular schools. The fact that the Central Panthers almost didn't exist further highlights how much of a little miracle it is that Bob Schembre's program is, without a doubt, changing lives. Parents regularly come up to him and thank him for their son's transformation. Sometimes the players themselves thank him for sparking growth that they've actually noticed in themselves. Andy and Jake say that football has taught them the underratedly useful skill of doing things that are difficult. The Heisserer brothers work tough part time jobs at a greenhouse, and say that football has made them better workers in every part of their lives. And Michael Wagner says, frankly, without football, he'd probably be bored and overweight.
We tend to talk about sports and athletics using numbers: Wins and losses, scores and statistics, speeds and weights. But the value of what Bob Schembre is doing with the Central Panthers is best measured in quality, not quantity. The team is small. The player's 40-yard dash times are slow. They probably won't win that much this year. And yet, the program is producing undeniably good kids. The kind that will, no doubt, be good adults some day quite soon.
Hell Week isn't always fun, but it's working.