Finding the enigma…

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. M. Kenui Balutski
  • 71st Flying Training Wing command chief
While stationed at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, last year, I was blessed with an incredible opportunity to coach high school football. 

I was interviewed for the line and linebacker coaching positions, since I'd played at those spots for many years, including three Texas semi-pro seasons in the 1990s and two years in Germany in the late 1980s. 

I became the oldest coach on the staff, so the others would jokingly ask me about the "leather" helmets we wore in the olden days or if I had a hard time adjusting once the forward pass became legal. That was in 1906 by the way. 

No doubt, we definitely had fun as a coaching staff off the field, but on the field it was all business. 

When pre-season practices began, we had roughly 80 student athletes of every size, shape, and capability trying-out for football. Some kids decided early on that football wasn't their cup of tea. Others waited a week before calling it quits. 

But the majority pushed through the two weeks of conditioning and fervently tried to earn junior varsity or varsity roster spots. 

Sometime after the two-week skill-building period, a pair of brothers named Adam and Daniel showed up to compete for junior varsity positions. They had been visiting their dad in the states and missed most of the developmental workouts, so they were both at a noticeable disadvantage. 

Daniel, the older and bigger of the two boys, could likely play as a lineman, so we agreed to give him a shot there. Adam on the other hand was a freshman, stood 5 feet 2 inches tall, and weighed only 120 pounds. He had never played football, so most of the coaches were concerned that he would be a liability on the field and a danger to himself. 

There was talk of cutting Adam based on the coaching staff's initial assessments, but I noticed that he had good speed, non-stop hustle, and a decent nose for the ball, so I told my fellow coaches that he could compete for a special teams spot if we worked on his football fundamentals first. 

No one agreed with my assessment. But I persisted. The other coaches finally said I could keep Adam on the junior varsity roster, but only if I took him on as a lineman. It wasn't a joke, and there wasn't a punch line. 

Over the next few weeks we worked on Adam's techniques and I could see him gaining in skill and confidence. Finally, just a few hurdles remained before he could take a legitimate shot at a permanent roster position. One of those hurdles was getting him into some "live-fire" evaluations and let him "hit and be hit" without any restrictions. 

It was a bit scary when we decided to let Adam face our first-string offensive linemen because some of them had played for years and outweighed him by 90 pounds. Many of us were instantly amazed when he started to make tackle after tackle with perfect technique. 

The other coaches egged on the starting offensive linemen to "man up" and keep Adam out of the backfield. No such luck. Adam kept readjusting to blocks and hustled on every single play. It was really something worth watching, so I kept him out there every day that week. 

By the end of the week, Adam had a new nickname, "the enigma," because he was a mystery who spawned a lot of questions and raised a lot of eyebrows. Within two weeks, Adam had earned a permanent roster spot and was selected as one of the 28 junior varsity players who would travel for our away-games in Germany. 

By season's end, Adam would become a starter, earn the "most-improved player" award and would redefine what a defensive lineman looked like. No doubt, "the enigma" had a profound impact on his team in more ways than one. 

He caused coaches to look beyond face value and search for something deeper. He caused his fellow players to look at their own lives and realize that they may have limited themselves because of defeatist attitudes or a simple lack of desire. 

Finally, he reaffirmed my belief that many gifted people just need to be discovered, coached and given opportunities to compete and succeed in their passions. 

As leaders and supervisors, we need to continually search for "the enigma" in every Airman. If we encourage the underlying capabilities of those who deeply desire "a starting position," we'll help grow better Wingmen, leaders, and warriors in the long run. 

If you haven't already started looking for an enigma, hold some varsity try-outs today.