Lessons Learned in the High School Ranks Under Needham’s (Mass.) Don Brock
By Doug Williamson, Assistant Director of Coaching Education
On Friday, Nov. 16, the Needham (Mass.) High School boys’ soccer team won the program's fourth State Championship, defeating Amherst Regional High School, 1-0. The Rockets earned their first state title in 1968.
The coach in 1968, and in 2012, and for all the years in between, has been one of the finest leaders in American high school soccer: Don Brock.
I learned long ago that a good journalist does not write in the first person. I am going to beg forgiveness in advance for violating that rule, as I will confess up front that this will be an intensely personal reflection on the career and influence of a man for whom I have deep and abiding respect. In February of this year, I was setting up to do a field session at the US Youth Soccer annual meeting in Boston. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of someone coming down out of the stands toward the floor where I was getting ready. I turned to look and was met by Don’s huge smile. Before I could even say hello he looked at me and said, “Don’t screw this up!” That comment is typical of Don’s sense of humor, but it’s also typical of his philosophy that one never takes anything for granted: not a practice, not a game (no matter whom the opponent), not a coaching clinic session. My parents had taught that philosophy, but as an adolescent, when my parents seemed to know much less than they know now, I needed an adult whom I respected to make sure that philosophy took root in my being.
Don Brock was that adult. It is indicative of that philosophy, and of Don’s commitment to lifelong learning, that a coach in his 70s, with more than 650 wins (career record: 688-183-122) and nothing to prove to anyone, would still be attending a coaching clinic to try to enhance his own learning.
I was a sophomore on that 1968 Needham state championship team, called up to varsity from JV late in the regular season and mostly watching from the bench as an amazing group of players, led by Robbie Ftorek, who would go on to play and coach in the NHL, convincingly marched to the title. I was the starting center midfielder under Don’s tutelage during the next two seasons when we recorded a cumulative record of 26-3-2.
Those seasons were invaluable for my growth and development—not only in learning the nuances of a sport I love, but in learning numerous life lessons as well. One of the most important lessons I learned from Don is that good coaches care about every single one of their players. No one would describe Don as an emotionally squishy, warm and fuzzy type guy. Yet his players never doubted his concern for, or commitment to, us. He would find time to take players aside for a word of encouragement, a reminder about doing things the right way, or a technical correction. Those moments conveyed to me and so many others who played for Don that “Coach Brock” always had our best interests at heart.
As much as I respected Don and loved playing for him, I was still a relatively naïve high school kid. It took a comment by another coach, 1,000 miles away, to drive home just how lucky I was to have played for Don Brock. When I arrived at little Rockford College in Rockford, Ill., as a freshman in the fall of 1971 I went to find my new coach, Hal Henderson (another man for whom I was glad to have had the chance to play), and check in. I casually asked him where he thought he might use me on the field. “Oh, you played center midfield in Needham for Don Brock,” said Hal. “So you’ll start at center midfield for us.” If I’d had even a sliver of doubt about the exceptional quality of my high school coach, that sliver was permanently erased from my being.
In an age when the teacher-coach is a vanishing breed, Don stands as a remarkable testimony to the importance of the teacher-coach model in the growth and development of young men and women. Don was, by all accounts, an exceptional math teacher (I was not fortunate enough to have had him in the classroom). He was a driving force during my time in high school behind the nascent computer science program in Needham, and he would serve for many years as the chair of the math department. Don took his teaching responsibilities in the classroom every bit as seriously as his teaching on the field. We who played for him knew that the phrase “studies come first” was no empty platitude when Don spoke it. When I became a coach I tried to emulate the teacher-coach model that I had learned from Don, and my own embrace of lifelong learning is rooted in part in his influence.
When I played soccer in high school, our program was often the talk of the school in the fall. We did not play our games on the high school grounds, yet we always had large crowds of our fellow students at our games—in an age when parents couldn’t always get to games. I remember scoring an overtime goal in my senior year on the Columbus Day holiday in front of hundreds of fans, including many of my friends and classmates. What a thrill! Don always created a positive image for our program and he promoted our games, so playing high school soccer with many of my closest friends, and in front of my schoolmates, was more fun than I know how to describe. The value of that high school sports experience has been immeasurable, as well as unique, both in my athletic career and in my life as a whole—and Don had a huge part in making it so. That experience is still alive and well in Needham—all one needs to do is go online and check out the pictures of the hundreds of Needham students, decked out in navy and gold, in the stands cheering on the Rockets at the Eastern Massachusetts and Massachusetts championship matches.
As I bring this tribute to conclusion, I celebrate the amazing coaching career of Don Brock and his indelible influence on me as a person and as a coach (I’m not going to share some of the strategic thinking I learned from Don—just in case I ever need to use some of that when my team plays against yours!), and upon the lives of hundreds of soccer players and thousands of students at Needham High School. But I also want to celebrate the many unsung high school soccer coaches across our country, and in our NSCAA membership, who are helping young men and women grow and develop positively, both on and off the soccer field. If you know one of those coaches in your community, I hope you’ll take a moment in this season of giving thanks to let him or her know how much you appreciate their efforts. I’ll start things off: thank you, Don, for being such an important part of my life and the lives of Needham high students over the years.