When you’re a sports writer for a newspaper that covers as many schools as I do, your contacts with most of the high school athletes that reside in your coverage area are limited. You quote them maybe two or three times during the season and you make personal judgments based on that. It’s not enough of a sample size to really know them.
I’ve always been aware that my interviews can lead to misconceptions. Teen-agers tend to be super respectful to me when I talk to them, which may be due to the fact that they know they’re going to be quoted. They also know that I’m an “old guy,” so that, too, may put them on their best behavior.
As I write this, I’m thinking about two members of the Jackson County Central football team, Rudy Voss and Bradley Buhl Jr., whose Huskies lost an emotional state tournament semifinal with Pierz recently. They, like their teammates, took the loss hard -- which is understandable because a victory would have made their dreams of playing for a championship a reality.
It happens after state tournament semifinals that a couple of players are asked to speak to assembled media in a post-game interview room, just like professionals do. These players are still kids, however, and unfamiliar with how the formal interview process works.
By now, many of you know that Rudy and Bradley did the post-Pierz interview together with head coach Tom Schuller. The video went viral on YouTube, and a whole bunch of incredible viewer responses resulted. It was Tweeted and re-Tweeted by NFL players. Viewers from countries as far away as Scotland and Australia gave it their thumbs-up, and both Voss and Buhl received lots of positive private messages about what they said. John Millea, who writes an online column for the Minnesota State High School League, said millions have seen it and have been inspired by it.
The video shows Rudy opening the press conference (with Minnesota Vikings logos in the background) fighting back tears, crediting Pierz with playing a great game, and saying that football has been “a blessing in my life.” He says, “Wins and losses don’t define me, don’t define our team.” He becomes overcome with emotion, so Bradley, sitting next to him, puts a hand on Rudy’s back and puts the emphasis on Pierz, which he calls a “sensational team.”
“They made one more play than we did. And that’ll happen in football,” he said.
These aren’t teen-agers, are they?
But they are. And that’s what makes the video so awesome.
Rudy sums it all up like a pro. The bus rides, the practices, the team meals -- being with teammates, seeing their coaches -- this is what makes football so special, he says. “The games are just a short portion of the season.”
Schuller explained to me how he tries to teach good sportsmanship to his players.
“We always tell the kids to do your best, and if you give it your very best, it’s good enough. It’s getting hard these days to teach that to kids. They’re just afraid of what will happen if their best isn’t good enough,” he said.
No wonder the video went viral. And no wonder viewers were so inspired, and continue to be. One of them apparently thought that the two prepsters were actual Minnesota Vikings, so he sent a message back, saying it’s incredible that “grown men,” “professional athletes” can be so honest and sensitive. Priceless.
The first time I interviewed Rudy for a Drill episode, he was a sophomore and was already an outstanding varsity basketball player. He checked all the boxes. We had a great time.
Watching him in games has always been fun. I recall his junior basketball season when he played against the Worthington Trojans, and I thought he let his emotions get a little bit away from him. But that was OK by me. An athlete should be passionate about the game, and Rudy is nothing if not passionate.
I talked to Rudy after JCC beat Luverne in the sectional football tournament this year and he treated me like I was an old friend. I asked him if he ever heard of Fran Tarkenton, because his scrambling reminded me of the Vikings Hall of Famer. He said he didn’t, which surprised me. I told him to ask his dad about Tark. And I thought to myself, what a fun kid.
During this year’s football season, I did another Drill episode with Bradley -- one week after I interviewed him after another big JCC football win. The hefty 6-foot, 215-pound bulldozer of a running back told me one of his favorite hobbies is eating. I liked him immediately.
So as a result of the viral video, Brad and Rudy and a third team captain, Jack Brinkman, were asked to speak to Pleasantville Elementary students in Lakefield about what they’d learned. Rudy said the most important thing is “love,” and I wondered how many high school football players would be comfortable enough in their own skins to make that kind of speech.
I spoke with Coach Schuller on Wednesday about post-game news conferences in general, and what he told me is worth considering, too.
“The thing that I thought about,” said Tom, “How do these NFL guys do that every week?”
Good question. Yet, they do it. But rarely do any of them do it as well as Rudy and Brad.