Note from Sports360az.com CEO Brad Cesmat
I have long admired the work ethic and insight of Ralph Amsden on the Arizona college and high school scene. You can see that he deeply cares about the craft and understands there’s no I in “team” on his platform.
However, there’s more to Ralph than just scores and results of games. A 15-minute conversation in the parking lot at Valle Luna led to us agreeing that Ralph should drop some of his knowledge and strong storytelling on the Sports360az.com faithful from time to time. Enjoy!
Last week I found myself on the phone with Douglas High head football coach James Fitzgerald. It’s a daily occurrence for me to speak with high school coaches about their players, schedules, strategies, generational grievances, and a wide array athletic-based topics. This conversation, however, was much different- and it left me thinking about the reason I, or anyone, becomes involved with any aspect of high school sports- be it playing, coaching, officiating, or in my case, media coverage.
Six years ago I accidentally backed into this gig after being laid off as the social media director of a fledgling startup company. I had originally gone to Arizona State to pursue a career path in Journalism, and grew up infatuated with the sports sections of both the Arizona Republic and East Valley Tribune- especially the high school sports coverage. Saturday mornings were spent reading thorough and entertaining stories of the on-field exploits of players like St. Mary’s Ryan Kealy or Desert Vista’s Bobby Wade. During my brief period of unemployment I became curious about an Arizona high school sports scene that I had only peripherally paid attention to over the previous decade, and I found that the robust and diverse coverage I had grown up loving seemed to be contracting in the face of a major population boom.
In that moment I was overcome with the desire to help. I didn’t know who I’d be helping, or how exactly I’d go about it, but within 24 hours of losing my job, I had registered a domain, built a website, and started researching all there was to know about high school athletics in the state of Arizona.
Six years later, that urge to lend a hand has morphed into a full-time job, and is the basis of how I spend my days, who I spend them with, and where I spend them. On this particular evening, I was spending my time on the phone with James Fitzgerald, and we were discussing the senseless murder of his friend and former teammate, Justin Lett. (Link: https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2018/05/justin_lett_-_found_slain_in_b.html)
Justin Lett and James Fitzgerald attended Valley Christian together. Lett, a senior captain on the football team, saw Fitzgerald, a freshman, eating lunch alone, and initiated a conversation. Soon, they were training for football together. Lett remained a friend and mentor to Fitzgerald throughout the season, and when Lett graduated, he gave Fitzgerald his blessing to inherit his number 2 jersey and carry on his legacy. When Fitzgerald came down with two interceptions in the 2009 state semifinals to propel Valley Christian to the state championship, he was wearing the same #2 that Justin Lett had himself won a championship in four years earlier.
Justin Lett changed the course of James Fitzgerald’s life, and set the tone for the approach that Fitzgerald takes to coaching the kids in Douglas.
“Justin lived life to the fullest. He made every single day count,” said Fitzgerald. “He made every single rep, every single drill like it was the Super Bowl with one minute left (and the game) on the line. I want to drive that home into my team, because that’s the way that I want to live. I want to live the way J-Lett lived. In the moment. All in. That’s what these guys need to do, because that’s what football is. You’ve gotta be all in, every play. Whether it’s practice, a game, or a rep in the classroom. You’ve got to be all in.”
“Justin mentored and touched a lot of lives,” Fitzgerald added, fighting back tears. “He did a lot of good, and there’s a lot of people out here now that are better because of him.”
As I’ve reflected on James Fitzgerald’s words over the last week, as well as the example that Justin Lett set for Fitzgerald as a senior captain of the Valley Christian football team back in 2006, I’ve come to reflect on my own story. I’ve thought about the people who had an impact on me as a young athlete, or as a friend, a husband, a father, a person of faith, a writer, or even as a member of the prep sports community. I’ve thought about the times when I set out to have a positive impact on others, as well as the times I may have unintentionally done the opposite.
Who was my Justin Lett? I’ve repeatedly asked myself. And who have I been a Justin Lett to?
Everybody has that someone- a formative figure, whether through inspiration, insistence or adversity, that helped shape the path that they’ve chosen. There is no place easier to find those stories than within the world of athletics. So that’s what I’m going to do. Brad Cesmat was kind enough to encourage me to share some stories that might not fit on my typical platforms with the fantastic audience he and his team have built up at Sports360AZ.com. Hopefully this column will be a worthwhile source of anecdotes and narratives that inspire reflection on the people and events that ultimately become our reasons for both aspiration and achievement. And when his column can’t hit that lofty mark, hopefully it can, at the very least, steal a few moments of your time in a worthwhile manner.