The team is losing to the opposition, and pressure is coming from all angles. Crucial decisions must be made. If executed properly, the match can still be won. The team leader makes a move, another teammate calls out a threat and the leader handles it. More information pours in from other teammates -- Where’s the opponent? Where’s he going? What’s his move? -- and more threats are eliminated.
The movements are calculated. Quick decisions are made. The objective is controlled. The game is won.
“Good stuff boys, let’s go!!,” says Crisp County defensive line coach Scooter Houston to his team.
“Now that’s teamwork baby,” the others exclaim.
Welcome to shelter-in-place.
The Crisp coaching staff is dominating right now, but it's not football. It’s a video game -- "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" -- and it has been one of the ways the staff has kept together while sidelined by the pandemic.
“It allows you to keep that competitive edge,” said Patrick Jordan, Crisp County's special teams and defensive backs coach. “Most people who are around sports their whole lives, such as coaches, have a truly competitive nature and have to find ways to compete in their daily lives. The best teams and coaches find ways for their guys to compete every day in practice. I think we thrive off competition, and "Call of Duty" is a way that we can get that accomplished.”
The latest installment of the "Call of Duty" franchise came out in October on Playstation, Xbox One and PC platforms and is unique because it is a cross-platform title. That means that players on either console or PC can play against each other in the same virtual battlefield, with hopes of achieving a goal as a six-man team facing off against six other players.
Now, for the back-story.
I graduated with Houston from Starr’s Mill in 2006 and we attended Georgia Southwestern together. We’ve known each other since sixth grade, growing up playing video games together and with our friends.
Since "Call of Duty" became cross-platform, we reconnected in the online world -- me on PC and he on Xbox One. Houston invited me into a game and I found myself roaming virtual battlefields with Houston and the majority of the Crisp County staff. I have always been decent at video games, but this was like something I had never experienced. The team unity, quality of communication and decision-making was second to none.
"These guys are a unit," I thought, a well-organized fighting force of carnage and destruction. A Band of Brothers.
And they are.
Any given night, several members of the Crisp County staff and sometimes some of the players have joined together on the online battlefield to compete, stay sharp, communicate, chat, shoot the breeze, talk life, football, family and anything in between.
But when it comes to the game-play, the coach that lives inside takes over.
“We’re still thinking tactically and systematically about how to achieve our objective,” said tight end/H-back coach Ronald Steinhelfer, or ‘Coach Stein’ as he’s known. “It’s just to win a video game instead of a football game.”
The staff at Crisp coached the Cougars to the state championship game against Cedar Grove in December and typically are around each other all the time for practice, spring games, planning, film-work and countless other events.
The family atmosphere within the coaching staff was changed when the sports world collectively shut down in March.
“We are already a really close staff, and I’ve missed these guys and the time we haven’t had,” said Steinhelfer. “Right now, we would be preparing for any spring game while staying late after practice and talking schemes and being competitive. Now we get that by playing "Call of Duty." Same theory, just a different game.”
Crisp defensive coordinator Will Conner just finished his first season in Cordele, and it took scant time for him to notice the family atmosphere on the staff.
“I can honestly say from working with several other coaching staffs in my career that the staff at Crisp is one of the closest staffs I have ever been a part of,” Conner said. “The football staff is an extension of my family. Not only have the guys become like brothers, our families enjoy getting together and spending time together.”
And (whether on the football field or the virtual battlefield) the coaches are good at ripping off headsets when frustrated. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s almost an ingrained talent, and no one can rip a headset off better than a frustrated coach. Just ask Conner’s wife and daughter; it's a running joke for them.
“It allows us to keep communicating with each other at a competitive level as we would on a Friday night, although a little less stressful,” Conner said. “But my wife says I snatch my gaming headset the same way I do my headset on a Friday night at the Den.”
The solace that comes with isolation and sheltering in place is welcomed for some, but it can be trying.
“We get online and talk about everything from football, to recruiting, to family, etc.,” said Jordan. “I am currently isolated in a lake-side cabin by myself, and these guys are the only family I have in this area of Georgia. They don’t know it, but they are keeping me sane with our daily video-game engagements.”
And that likely is the case with countless sidelined coaches across the state.
It's a constant struggle to communicate without the ability to comfortably sit in the same room, a difficult task maintaining a competitive edge, and finding a way to scratch the coach's itch that's always searches for victory.
Sometimes, creativity wins. And in the case with Crisp’s coaching staff, video games have provided a competitive outlet and helped the staff stay together, in virtual body and mind.
“I think playing video games gives you a daily escape from the times,” said Jordan. “You don’t have to think and worry about everything that is happening in the world around you.”
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