Fearless leader

Mike Sherman left the NFL behind to find himself and his family

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EASTHAM, Mass. — Cape Cod is beautiful but barren this time of year. Many stores are shuttered. Restaurant parking lots are empty. Orange barrels seem to block traffic in every direction as the Cape prepares for next summer’s tourists. The ubiquitous mini golf centers that are on on every other corner look bleak and foreboding. Few things sound less fun than standing in this cold wind and playing miniature golf.

One thing that DOES sound less fun: Standing in this cold wind and coaching a struggling high school football team.

“What do you mean, ‘My bad?’” Mike Sherman is saying to those Nauset High players he now coaches. The sun has set, and the air bites, and the practice has been good. “I know it’s your bad. Everyone here knows it’s your bad. You don’t have to shout out ‘My bad,’ like you’re making excuses. We all know it’s your bad.”

Everyone has thought about doing something like this in their life, right? I’ve talked to a thousand football coaches, and I would say that at some point just about every one of them made some halfhearted comment about going back to the beginning, when the coaching was pure, when the kids really were kids, when a coach didn’t just talk about making an impact on young men’s lives but he actually made an impact.

Yes, everyone has thought about it. Fleeting thoughts.

Funny, though, those visions never include this scene, a grandfather shivering at night and coaching up the 23 surviving players of a 1-9 football team.

“My bad,” Sherman says with wonder in his voice. “Yeah. We know.”

* * *

“Football,” says Mike Sherman, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, Texas A&M Aggies and Green Bay Packers and now head coach of the Nauset Regional High School Warriors, “is not always fun. That’s what makes it different from baseball and basketball. In baseball, you know, it’s all fun. Practice is fun. The game is fun.

“But in football, you have to do a lot of things that aren’t a whole lot of fun. You have to get into the dirt. You have to bang into each other. You have to work out things over and over, and some of those things are painful. A lot of it isn’t fun at all but you have to do it if you want to get better.”

Here, Mike Sherman pauses for effect.

“Like life,” he finally says.

We are sitting in the Nauset weight room, shaking off the cold after football practice. It is small. You could probably fit this entire weight room inside Sherman’s old office with the Aggies or Packers, but Sherman stopped making comparisons like these a long time ago. It’s a new life he has chosen and it’s been an interesting year.

Even now, Mike Sherman cannot quite explain why after 30 or so years of coaching at the highest levels of professional and college football, he came back to coach football at a high school most famous for graduating pop star Meghan Trainor. Sometimes, he looks at his team and the size of his players and seems confused about it himself.

“You,” he says to me (and to others), “could probably play left tackle for us.”

He took this job because it was time to settle down. That’s one possibility. He’d asked his wife, Karen, to move 11 different times in their coaching odyssey together, and it wasn’t fair anymore. The closest thing Karen and the kids had to a home base was right here, in Cape Cod, where they would come for a month every summer. They would fish and bicycle and be a family, and then they would all return to the hectic coaching life in College Station, Tex., or Green Bay, Wis., or Los Angeles. Sherman owed this to his family. “It was time to stop moving,” he says.

He took this job because it was time to get off the coaching treadmill. That’s another possibility. Sherman had taken the Packers to four straight playoff appearances, but that fifth year the Packers went 4-12 and he was canned. He took Texas A&M to three straight bowl games (developing quarterback Ryan Tannehill along the way) but the Aggies lost all three, the last year was rough, and he was canned. He was the offensive coordinator in Miami, but the Dolphins went through all that bullying stuff and the team didn’t score enough points, and he was canned again. At some point, it just seems like enough is enough, you know?

Watch: Every episode of Sherman’s Warriors

He took this job because his family wanted him to take it. That’s a third possibility. Sherman was looking at various business possibilities outside of coaching. In fact, he was considering holding some football camps for kids. That’s why he called Nauset in the first place; he wanted permission to use their football field. But the head coach at the time, Keith Kenyon, came back instead with a job offer. Kenyon said he was stepping down. He asked Sherman to take the job.

Of course Sherman said no. Him? Coach a high school team? A million questions crossed his mind, and 999,999 of them pushed him toward “NO!” Did he have the energy to coach high school kids? Could he summon the commitment level? (“All kids, at every level, need to know that you are 100 percent in for them,” Sherman says.) Could he deal with the daily frustration of trying to build a high school program? And was he giving up a chance to someday return to the NFL? No, no, no, he wasn’t going to take that job.

Then his family went to work on him. His daughter, Sarah, told him that coaching was his life. His son, Matthew, told him to forget all those business opportunities and do what he loved. But, mostly, it was Karen, who said, “Coaching is your gift. You were put on this earth to coach. You should share your gift. Maybe you are meant to change the life of one of these young men.”

All of that made some sense to him. He liked the school. He liked the kids. But … it took Sherman four months to make his decision. He finally took the job, for those reasons above and for other reasons too, things he doesn’t like to talk about.

“When you get to be 60,” Sherman says, “you start to think about your mortality.”

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On the Warriors’ first road trip into Boston, Sherman noticed something unusual. The bus was stopped in traffic. He looked around, baffled because something about it didn’t feel right. He’d been stuck in Boston traffic before. He’d been on buses to games all his life. Why did this one feel so odd?

And then it hit him: This was the first time in more than 30 years that he’d been on a bus to a football game that DID NOT have a police escort.

This was the stuff that people always want to talk to him about — the odd and sometimes comical juxtaposition of being a big-time football coach in a small-time situation. My pal Michael Schur, executive producer of “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” says there have been numerous television pitches featuring a former U.S. president trying to adjust to real life again. But, you will note, these shows never actually make it to air because, beyond the initial giddiness, the premise is flimsy. Once you get past the few obvious jokes — the first time the President gets stuck in traffic, the first time the President realizes how much a can of tuna costs and so on — there’s not necessarily much with which to work.

So, yes, at first Sherman found himself in all sorts of screwy situations, like that bus in traffic or the confused looks the kids gave him the first time he mentioned the term “iso,” or the time he told a player to get in the shade — a common football phrase asking the player to edge more toward a defensive gap — and the player ran toward the trees by the field.

But, once you get past that stuff, what’s left is work. Hard work. Personal work. Nauset High comes into just about every game as an underdog. Sherman has been impressed by the players’ work ethic, and he talks proudly of how much his players have improved. But realities are realities: They are too small, and they don’t have a lot of depth, and kids on the Cape don’t grow up living and breathing football the way they do in, say, Texas or Wisconsin.

“I don’t think a lot of these kids even watch football,” Sherman says. “They hunt. They fish. That’s really what you do around here.”

Because of this, Sherman has had to change his coaching mentality. His favorite part of coaching had always been the chess-playing part, the matching of strategies, the design of plays and watching them work. But he hasn’t been able to use that muscle memory much at Nauset. “It can be a little bit frustrating,” he says. “There are times when I know something will work, but I also know we can’t do it.”

For instance, in practice he runs an end-around pass with his tight end. The first time he runs the play, the receiver is wide open and the tight end unleashes a quacking duck of a pass that falls to the ground 20 yards short of the target.

“What was that?” Sherman shouts laughing, and everybody else laughs too. “Let’s run it again.”

They run it again, and this time the pass dies 25 yards short of the target.

“OK,” Sherman says, still smiling but no longer laughing. “Maybe we’ll put that one away for a while.”

The real effort, then, is working on the basics and working on the basics and also working on the basics. Blocking technique. Being in the right place. How to tackle. Keeping up the energy. For a coach who has been at the highest level of the sport, it can sometimes feel like he’s a concert pianist playing chopsticks.

“I’ll tell you what keeps you going,” Sherman says. “You see great improvement in players. I’ve always said that it’s your job as a coach to help players improve, and that’s true at the college level and the professional level, too.

“But here, you see much bigger steps of improvement. You see a player who didn’t know what he was doing three months ago now making plays and it’s a good feeling. It’s like you’re watching them grow up before your very eyes. That part of it has been great.”

He sits down on a weight bench.

“If only we’d win a few more games,” he says.

* * *

Yes, Nauset High lost its first nine games, and Sherman wasn’t ready for that. He knew that his team would be out-manned at times. He knew that he would be relying on a lot of underclassmen, and that’s hard when you’re playing against teams with a lot of seniors. He knew that it would take a while to install his system and his coaching philosophy. He knew that this would be a tough year.

He didn’t know that the team would lose its first nine games.

The early games were blowouts. The schedule pinned Nauset up against some of the better teams in the state early, and the Warriors weren’t ready for that level of competition. Over time, the Warriors were more competitive. They lost a heartbreaking game by a point to Silver Lake.

The losses crushed Sherman. It’s just the way he’s wired. He could remind himself again and again that he had a higher purpose here, that this wasn’t like losing with the Packers or Texas A&M. But the truth was it hurt just as much as those losses, more than those losses, and he admits that he did not take it well. He couldn’t sleep. He found himself playing the games over and over again in his head.

“I had to change,” he said. “I was taking those losses way too hard. I wanted it so badly for these kids, that it was affecting how I was doing the job. After a few games, I knew that I had to change. I started trying to have a little more fun with the guys. Joke around a little more. Take it more in stride. This isn’t the NFL. These are kids playing football. Most of them aren’t thinking about playing at the next level. This is their football experience, and it should be great for them.”

In Week 10, last week, they finally won a game. They beat Pembroke 24-10 behind three touchdowns from junior Akeem Atkinson and the passing of quarterback Travis Van Vleck. The postgame celebration was a little bit of heaven.

“That feeling was just like every win I ever had with the Packers or Texas A&M,” he says. “That was the greatest thing. When I think back about my favorite days of coaching, it is always that — being in the winning locker room after the game. I don’t think back to the losing losing locker room. I think about the winning, and the joy, everybody hugging, one big family … it’s like everyone turns into kids.

“And it was like that when we won our game. It took too long, but I was so glad we got that win. Winning makes us all kids.”

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Mike Sherman won’t watch NFL games live anymore. He still watches them, but only on replay, after he knows how the games turned out. When he watches the NFL live, it stirs up all these emotions — nervousness, anxiety, excitement, anger, joy, frustration — all these feelings he used to have when he was on the sidelines. He cannot lie. He misses it.

This year of high school coaching — he doesn’t quite know how to sum it up. There was a lot of fun and a lot of frustration. There were a lot of surprises, too. He was surprised, for instance, by how much power his words held. He would tell a player or a young coach that they did a good job, and they would go soaring into the stratosphere, thrilled beyond words. Then, if he said something critical, he might break them.

“It got to the point where I have started experimenting with what I say, just to see their reaction,” he says. “It’s like a social experiment.”

He has gotten used to the bare-bones nature of Nauset High coaching, gotten used to putting out the footballs himself and slowing down to explain every concept and all that. He has gotten used to having a parent call to say her son can’t go to practice because of an orthodontist appointment. He has gotten used to dealing with young kids — his car radio, I notice, is on Sirius Hits 1, and a Justin Bieber song plays when we go for a short ride.

“I’ve learned as much from these players as they’ve learned from me,” he says. “Maybe more.

“A football team really does share many of the same attributes as a family. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s real. There’s nothing quite like knowing that we are all in this together, we win together, we lose together, we are there for each other in the best and worst times. That has been the best part. We have become a family.”

But, plainly, Sherman has not gotten used to being so far away from football’s center stage. He doesn’t miss the attention or the media or the huge crowds. He misses, well, the excellence of it. There is no feeling quite like designing plays for Brett Favre, no feeling quite like watching Favre turn those plays into magic. There’s no feeling quite like matching wits with Bill Belichick or Dick Vermeil or Tony Dungy. There’s no feeling quite like sharing a locker room with some of the best football players around and trying to reach extraordinary heights with them.

“Would I want to coach in the NFL again?” he asks out loud. He pauses and shrugs and does not answer his own question.

Instead, he talks about how rewarding it has been coaching at Nauset, and how good it has been for his family. He talks about how he will design a workout program for his Nauset players in he offseason. They have to get stronger.

And the future?

You know, every day Mike Sherman does a little writing. Well,he types into his phone. He types in vague thoughts. He creates inspirational quotes. He writes a bit about his faith, and he writes some of the funny things that happen to him. I ask him if he writes about the future, and he shrugs. Maybe that’s the biggest thing Sherman has learned in his year of coaching high school football: You never know about the future.

“Before you leave,” Sherman says, “you should go down and look at the water. I love to just go take a walk down there whenever I can. You should definitely go. It’s one of the most beautiful things you will ever see.”

Watch: Every episode of Sherman’s Warriors