Gorman: Life lessons from high school football
Danny Cafaro lives in Midland, the west Texas town near the setting for Friday Night Lights, the book that begat a hit television show and blockbuster movie.
So, it's fair to say, high school football is both very near and dear to the former Upper St. Clair star.
Ten years after his high school career ended, you wouldn't believe what Cafaro misses most about football.
“Looking back on it, I loved camp,” Cafaro said. “You hate it at the time, but just the laughs and bonding you go through, hitting and grinding every day, it brings a team together.”
It wasn't the glory of games, the memory of playing at Heinz Field for the WPIAL Class AAAA championship or scoring five touchdowns in one game that Cafaro misses.
No, it was practice.
That 2004 Upper St. Clair team is best remembered for its star player, Sean Lee, who would play linebacker at Penn State and for the Dallas Cowboys.
But I remember those Panthers as much for Danny Cafaro and Josh Helmrich as I do Sean Lee. Not because of what they accomplished in high school, but what they overcame to accomplish afterward.
Everyone who has played high school football has dreamed of playing major-college football and in the NFL.
The odds of doing either, however, are slim. Of the nearly 1.1 million high school football players, less than 8 percent receive a college scholarship. Of the 100,000 high schools seniors playing football, 0.2 percent will make an NFL roster.
Not everyone can be Sean Lee, who made it to the NFL even after tearing the ACL in both knees in college.
Cafaro learned this when Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render moved him from tailback to receiver as a junior.
Cafaro admits now that he didn't handle the request well, letting his bruised ego affect his performance. He had been a running back his whole life, and took it as an insult.
“I think you see it a lot, and I think it's natural,” Cafaro said. “Growing up in youth football, with dads being the coaches, sometimes you're put on a pedestal and made to believe that while you're very good at that position, no one wants to believe that someone else is better suited.”
Before Cafaro's senior season, Render told him he was a special player but receiver was where the team needed him. Cafaro bought in and went on to become a two-way standout who was selected to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Terrific 25.
The 160-pound Cafaro battled Lee every day in practice, relying upon a mettle that would later be tested.
“There's not many people who get to say they lost their position to Sean Lee, right?” Cafaro said, with a laugh. “I still tell people the reason Sean is as good of a tackler as he is today is because I never let him tackle me in drills.”
Cafaro would prove to be a survivor. He was diagnosed in 2006 with Hodgkin's lymphoma, but beat cancer. He was on campus at Virginia Tech a year later when the deadliest mass school shooting occurred.
Watching Lee star at Penn State was the confidence boost that Cafaro needed when he decided to walk-on at Pitt. He would play cornerback for the Panthers, making his first tackle at Notre Dame.
“I knew before I got sick how mentally tough and fearless I was,” said Cafaro, 27, now vice president and head of operations for TegraExcel Oil Field Logistics. “The only thing it changed was my body size. My mentality was the same.”
Helmrich was a 5-foot-9 quarterback who recovered from a torn ACL as a junior to lead USC to an 11-1 record in '04. He graduated as class valedictorian and attended Yale.
Helmrich was surprised to learn that many of his college teammates didn't have a similar high school football experience.
“High school football is definitely a huge highlight in my life,” Helmrich said. “Playing with your friends and having moments of exhaustion and the great experience playing in front of big crowds and at Heinz Field. It allowed me and Danny and Sean to have a close relationship. You learned what you had to do to be successful. It was amazing.”
After flirting with a career in finance on Wall Street, Helmrich, 28, now works for the NFL as manager of business development and media strategy.
Both Cafaro and Helmrich realize the foundation for their success in the business world started early, and credit the life lessons they learned in high school football.
“Coach Render and the staff did a great job preparing us for the future,” Cafaro said. “It wasn't just all about football when you look back. At the time you don't realize you're getting lessons that help you as people, with your work ethic and commitment.”
Render, entering his 51st season, knows that Lee is a once-in-a-lifetime player but has built a program with players like Cafaro and Helmrich.
“I have been very fortunate at Upper St. Clair,” Render said. “There's been a lot of kids like those guys. I've had success with a lot of under-recruited kids. Danny Cafaro and Josh Helmrich are great examples.”
That their lessons included setbacks, from injuries to sickness to heartbreaking losses in the WPIAL playoffs, only made them more memorable.
“Football is more than just the 60 minutes you're on the field,” Helmrich said. “Besides those 12 games, football has made a bigger impact on my life than just that short time. It gave me great memories that I'll never forget.”
That should be a lesson to everyone who plays high school football: The setbacks are temporary. The memories last forever. What you learn in practice is as important as how you play under the Friday night lights.