It’s the middle of July and a dozen Tempe High teenagers — mostly freshmen who’ve seen more real-world ugliness than most adults ever will — are walking off the makeshift football practice field.
En route to the locker room of the inner-city school, one of them stops under a nearby tree to seek shaded relief and chat with Mike Washington, a former Buffaloes player during its mid-to-late 1990s football heyday who’s now an assistant coach.
Next to Washington is a 62-year-old wearing shorts and a Tempe High T-shirt. After the kid’s quick exchange with Washington, the elder gentleman chimes in with a reminder about working hard.
“Yes, sir,” the freshman replies.
Then the kid is briefed on remembering fundamentals about catching the football in his hands.
“Yes, sir,” the freshman replies.
Then the kid is told to stay disciplined and keep his head on straight.
“Yes, sir,” the freshman replies with a grin.
The kid walks away. Washington laughs and exchanges a handshake and hug with the elder statesman.
“He probably saved my life,” Washington said with a quick point at Tim McBurney, Tempe High Class of ’67 and school Hall-of-Famer.
McBurney was once a player, assistant and head coach at Tempe who led the school to its only state championship in 1996. The man who left to start Chandler Basha in 2002 is back from whence he began, this time as Brian Walker’s offensive coordinator.
His influence and 30 years of success already has Tempe changing its styles and schemes between the lines, but the interest in X’s and O’s can only go so far in this inner-city school where kids often work after school because their parent(s) lost their jobs.
It’s a big assumption that they still have a parent. Or any family life.
Strangely enough, that was some of the appeal for McBurney, who rarely had to deal with such issues at the more affluent school in Chandler.
“There’s no easy solution to these kids’ daily problems, trying to keep kids in the program and be an influence on their lives,” he said. “Football ends and then life begins.
“We would buy a football player flowers at Basha if a kid’s family member passed away, so we’d buy them maybe two or three times per season. Here, it was almost every week.”
McBurney’s track record at both Tempe and Basha suggests that wins and losses are paramount to his idea of success, but this attempt to revive a program through a decade of on-field downers is only half the battle — maybe less.
“To come back was an easy choice,” he said. “I can’t stand to see something that was successful not be reached again.”
There’s still bitterness about his dismissal from Basha after the 2009 season. He helped out at Coolidge last year, the influence of Walker and Tempe High principal Mark Yslas gave him the chance to rejoin his alma mater.
Washington isn’t the only former grad coaching at the school, and former Basha offensive line coach Don Krolak’s teaching/coaching combination helped him join the staff to add more on-campus credibility.
Yslas also allowed McBurney to begin teaching two physical education classes (mostly football kids) beginning in January, an increasingly pivotal part of a program’s viability these days and one Tempe needs more than most.
Given the 0-10 record in 2010, the program’s last winning season was 2004, and its last playoff appearance was even longer ago, counting on the Buffaloes to be a postseason team in 2011 is lofty.
McBurney wouldn’t go that far, but the junior class is promising and the sophomore and freshmen are solid in numbers.
McBurney was dogged in his belief the program can eventually win games again. Then, aided by the relative coolness of the shade, he shook his iron fist that these kids can go undefeated in the game of life.
“Whether they buy into what we’re selling remains to be seen, not just this season but in life’s direction,” he said. “That’s our real job as coaches. It’s corny but a hard fact that if all you teach is X’s and O’s it’s not going to translate to anything.”