Aug. 30, 2010
What it means to be a captain
By David Boyce
Brett Grozinger arrived at Northwest Missouri State from Chillicothe High School as a walk-on in 2006. His goals were rather modest.
Grozinger, an offensive lineman, wanted to make the team and one day play on Saturday afternoons for one of the best football programs in NCAA Division II.
It's really what all walk-ons at Northwest aspire to.
Grozinger was a little different. He worked so hard that now, in his senior year, he's one of six captains ready to lead the Bearcats to another successful season.
"It means a lot," he said. "I was a walk-on and now I'm a captain. I've been on both ends. It's awesome. I never even dreamed I would be in this position."
A strong group of captains can make or break a team when adversity inevitably strikes during a football season.
Grozinger is one example red-shirt players, freshmen and sophomores can look to and study on what it takes to move up a depth chart and become an integral part of a championship team.
Coach Mel Tjeerdsma said sometimes a walk-on loses the burning desire once they reach a certain point and earn a few scholarship dollars.
"Brett has never been that way. He's just gotten better and better and progressed and worked right through that," Tjeerdsma said. "Last year was really an outstanding year for him. I think, honestly, he exceeded his expectations last year.
"He just started playing well and doing things right and he just continued to improve. He's never really been satisfied. That's the reasons why he's where he is at."
Grozinger is one of the captains the players can turn to when things get rough. He considers himself one of the quiet leaders.
"I guess I represent the quiet people on the team," he said. "Shayne Shade (senior defensive tackle) and I are linemen and linemen don't talk too much."
The Bearcats definitely have some vocal leaders who are captains. Senior quarterback Blake Bolles possesses the personality and the insight to say the right things at the right time.
Junior wide receiver Jake Soy has the upbeat persona. Senior linebacker Willie Horn brings the intensity and isn't shy about saying a few words. And senior Aldwin Foster-Rettig has a more quiet intensity. He doesn't say as much as Horn, but he gets his point across.
"This year I think we have a very diverse group of captains," Horn said. "We have a captain basically for each position group on the team. That is going to help us a lot throughout the season because we have a voice for each position. I think it is going to make us just that much stronger as a team.
"We have some guys who don't like to talk a lot and we have guys who like to talk a lot. It makes it light and fun, but at the same time, when it comes down to getting to business, we all do what we need to do."
Bolles said he believes this is the strongest group of captains since he's been at Northwest.
Why is it important to have a strong group of captains in football?
Well, it can simply make or break a season.
Back in 2005, after a 56-35 loss to Pittsburg State on Oct. 29, the Bearcats were on the brink of falling apart. The team dropped to 6-3. Dissension had hit the locker room.
The senior captains took a stand. Northwest won its last regular-season game, made the playoffs and won five straight road playoff games before losing to Grand Valley State in the title game.
They were a cohesive unit in the playoffs.
Without the leadership of quarterback Josh Lamberson and others, the magical playoff might never have happened.
"Even the year before that, in 2004, our captains really took over there," Tjeerdsma said. "In 2005, our captains really took a stand on a few things and made a difference.
"I think captains are really important in the fact they know so much more of what is going on than we as coaches. They have a feel of how an individual feels. They have a feel how the team is going, team attitude. They can communicate stuff back to the team better than the coaches.
"The rest of the team knows that this is the way the captains feel then they accept it and that really helps us all be on the same page."
The Bearcats pick their captains by team vote. They go through off-season conditioning and spring football without captains. The voting takes place a few days after spring football.
Sometimes there are four captains, sometimes five or six.
"I really feel when there is not much separation in votes I would rather have another captain instead of shutting someone out just because he got beat by two votes," Tjeerdsma said.
This year's captains take their role very seriously. They understand the team doesn't revolve around them.
In fact, Tjeerdsma sees the role of captain being a two-way street. It helps the player as much as the player helping the rest of the team.
"You focus less on yourself and more on how the team is doing," Soy said. "When coach asks you how practice is going, ‘you don't say I had a bad day.' You think how the receivers did, how the quarterbacks did and how you played as a unit. You focus more on the team than yourself."
The captains this year understand what previous captains meant to them.
"It is really a great honor," Bolles said. "Just look at some of the captains that have been at this institution since I've been here like Xavier Omon, Mike Peterson and guys like that. It is great to be thrown into the mix with those guys to get an opportunity to be a leader and one of the guys the players look up to. I'm really looking forward to it."
The captains know the younger players are always watching them.
As Bolles said, they can't afford to hang their heads after a bad play. It becomes much easier for a younger player to give into a tough situation if they see a captain reacting poorly.
"We are kind of what everyone looks at," Grozinger said. "When things are getting hard, they look at us to see what we are doing. We are the focal point. If we are dogging it, they will dog it. If we are busting our tails they are going to follow suit."
The 2010 captains accept the position they are in. Even the quiet ones understand their responsibilities.
"I feel like all the captains are pushing the guys to do the best they can do and help us to be successful this year," Bolles said.
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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