Baldwin football team journeys to Pro Football Hall of Fame for inspiration

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Pete Wagner was named Baldwin's head football coach in February after four years as an assistant, he knew something more had to be done off the field if the program wanted to experience success on it.

“There's a lot of rigor there. You're on them, building relationships, setting expectations,” Wagner said of the day-to-day stresses of football.

“It's always good to just step away and be able to have a relaxed environment around the kids so they can see the coaches in a different atmosphere.”

Wagner took his Fighting Highlanders squad to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, last week as part of offseason team-building he thinks will change the attitude and, eventually, performance of a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2003.

“The kids were excited about the day, but I'm trying to get them excited about the game of football,” Wagner said. “In terms of building a network of support around them in this community, we need to eat, drink and sleep football.”

The team took an introductory tour and watched a behind-the-scenes film about last year's Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, which junior quarterback Doug Altavilla felt created a sense of unity.

“We all sat in there together as a team, and you can tell that inspired us and gave us more motivation for the season to come,” Altavilla said.

On the bus ride to Canton, Wagner played an NFL Films Top 100 Players of All-Time film to give the players some background about the game's greatest.

“They hear about these guys and see them in the record books,” Wagner said. “To show clips of those guys and give them background about the amount of hard work and preparation those guys put in on a daily basis is something to see.

“Their preparation and attention to detail is something we stress on a daily basis.”

Many players made the trip for the first time and were impacted by the walk through the bust-filled hallways.

“It gives me a better mindset than before. It gives me more motivation and energy to work harder,” said Nick Barca, a senior running back/free safety. “It makes me want to play for the team.”

Wagner is also a teacher at Baldwin and thinks spending time together building stronger interpersonal relationships will benefit a team trying to reshape its identity in the Quad Central Conference.

“Spending time with one another is extremely important to me,” said Wagner, a Seton La-Salle alum. “The kids you play with in high school are typically the friendships you are going to value and cherish throughout the rest of your life. It's a special, special bond.”

Players with Western Pennsylvania ties like Mike Ditka, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas were highlighted as their personal stories were told as examples of overcoming adversity.

“All those guys who they enshrine on a year-to-year basis have walked in their shoes in some sort of fashion,” Wagner said. “There's a lot of really special stories they got exposed to. If you take one story and relate it to one kid, you can really take something away from it.”

Trips and community events are something new that Wagner wants to introduce to the players in hopes of gaining support within the community and creating a stronger sense of pride.

“The kids want people to show interest in them,” Wagner said. “That's what we're trying to do.”

Baldwin already started its summer training program, practicing on the field four days a week along with weight and speed training for three days.

“People need to understand the hard work and commitment they put in to this game,” Wagner said. “If they understand, then it's going to go a long way.”

Six months in and with one trip to football's most hallowed grounds, and Wagner is changing the mindset in the locker room.

“Every year we're striving to get a winning record and keep moving on,” Altavilla said. “(A winning record this year) would be great for this program.”

Barca added: “It would be nice to be the first team in school history to go to Heinz Field.”

Justin Criado is a freelance writer.

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