The 12th Player

“I thought one of the most valuable players in the game for us didn’t play, and that was Damon Huard (#19). I thought the look he gave us in the scout team for our defense was fabulous.” – Bill Belichick after the Patriots win over the Baltimore Colts for the AFC Championship

One thing I like about American sports is that they give out championship rings to a broad base of people within the sporting organisation that wins the championship. The NFL pays for 70 rings for the Superbowl winning team to give out to players, coaches, executives, owners, and general staff. It’s a nice way of recognising it takes more than just the people on the field on the day to win a championship (I would probably draw the line at commentators and cheerleaders).

I’ve never liked how Australian Rules Football competitions only recognise the players that play in a grand final when they give out the medals. There have been too many Footballers that have made contributions to their teams to miss out. I’m sure purists will talk about how it’s a big part of the charm of the game that makes it unique and gets people talking – something along he lines of that bullshit Sepp Blatter said about why they shouldn’t use goal line technology after Lampard’s goal was incorrectly disallowed (thankfully he’s recently backflipped).

The good team cultures are the ones that recognise the contribution of players off the field. One story that struck me was the contribution 3rd string quarterback Damon Huard made in the New England Patriots preparation before the AFC championship game against Indianapolis in the 2003-2004 season. The “America’s Game” documentary shows footage of Huard mimicking Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning to a tee including mannerisms, habits and speech to thoroughly help prepare the Patriots defense. Belichick praises his 3rd string quarterback after the game by acknowledging his work in front of the media and team and giving Huard the game ball.

Grantland recently wrote a sentimental yet tongue-in-cheek article on the “12th men” on NBA rosters in the 80s who “enjoyed” long careers. As 7’5 Center Chuck Nevitt, who won a championship with Boston said of his playing days with limited court time:

“My job was preparing the other guys… And I was fine with that.”

In Volleyball, there is ongoing debate over substitutions and court time. I was surprised to hear a coach of a high profile college program in the US explain that he used the 15 sub rule so he could give a generous amount of court time to 9 players and “keep the locker room happy”.

Back home in SA, it’s interesting to see how the various clubs treated their bench players. At some clubs they were peripheral players that were just picked on the day to make up the numbers. Some clubs didn’t train with 12 and would just have their best 7-9 players train on their own while their reserves team trained on the next court. At my last club, #10-#12 on the League men’s team were treated with a lot of fondness and respect by the rest of the team, and it was made clear they were very much part of the team. As a player from another club commented to me “the club makes a bigger deal of what these players do than other clubs would.” It’s probably how they kept good players that could, and should have moved to other clubs for a starting spot.

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