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Parental Lessons from the #FreePianoMan Movement

Posted on November 6th, 2015

Dear Parents,

Happy November! Like many of you, I’ve been swept up in the excitement of the Memphis Tigers football season and the dynamic combination of Paxton Lynch and Justin Fuente. While I’ll leave the sports journalism to the Commercial AppealMemphis Flyer, andMemphis Daily News, it’s hard not to find lots of life lessons in the program’s rise from one of the worst to one of the best in the country.

While I recognize and appreciate that football is the ultimate team sport and don’t want to discount the role of all the players and coaches who’ve played a central role in the rise of the Tigers, the relationship between the quarterback (Lynch) and the head coach (Fuente) epitomizes how and why the team has grown leaps and bounds in two short years. More importantly it also exemplifies how some of the challenges of middle school can be overcome successfully with the right mindset and focus on the future. 

Before I get into the specifics of what the Lynch-Fuente-Memphis Tigers story means in Middle School, it’s important to backtrack to the Fall of 2013 and the #FreePianoMan movement. Before the 2013 season started, there was an intense battle for the starting quarterback position between senior incumbent starter Jacob Karam and redshirt freshman Lynch. We’ll get to Lynch’s character shortly, but, in addition to solid quarterback play, Karam distinguished himself as an awesome human being.  In July 2013, a video of him playing piano with a St. Jude patient went viral, and people across the country marveled at the talented Memphis quarterback. He was later named to the AllState Good Works Team for his dedication to service. Lynch would need to have a GREAT season to prevent naysayers from calling for Karam to start.

Lynch didn’t have a very good season in 2013 and either did the Tigers.  They lost six of their first seven games and finished an uninspiring 3-9. Lynch threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions and was rated 107 out of 122 amongst quarterbacks in the NCAA Football Bowl Division. After a few difficult games, fans started a Twitter movement called #FreePianoMan. It included pictures of Jacob Karam on the sideline and hurtful comments about Lynch and Fuente.

Despite the daily calls to sit Lynch and put in Karam, Fuente stuck with the redshirt freshman throughout the season.  Many fans thought he was simply being stubborn, or, worse, that he was incompetent. The rest is history. The Tigers are riding a 15-game winning streak and have risen to #15 in the national rankings. Lynch is a household name across the country. He’s been mentioned in the Heisman Trophy conversation, and, if he leaves school after this season, odds are high that he’ll be a top pick in the 2016 NFL draft. If that’s not a long way from the #FreePianoMan, I’m not sure what is. While I don’t know Lynch personally, he certainly seems like a positive leader and a good teammate. In what might be the truest test of his character, he hasn’t sought out the naysayers who doubted them to say “Who wants to #FreePianoMan now?”

So, how does the inspiring story of the 2015 Memphis Tigers football team provide lessons for middle school parents?  I know that I’m prone to emphasizing the “sport is a reflection of life” commentary, but I certainly see some strong messages in the Tiger narrative.

1. Stand by your principles.  As they develop a sense of self, pre-adolescent and adolescent children will challenge everything. Even the typically compliant child might begin to question long-held rules and family norms. Personally, I sometimes feel friction between making my children happy and wanting them to learn the principles that Samantha & I feel strongly about. I’m learning that it’s at these times when our firm stances on our principles benefit our children the most in the long-term. Fuente emphasized this in his decision to stick with the principles of his building plan in the face of considerable pressure to bench Lynch and, potentially, win more games in 2013. 

2. Recognize that your middle school children are a work in progress.  While it’s inherently difficult when you live with pre-adolescent or adolescent children, it’s important to take the long view. Middle school children are capable of amazing things intellectually, athletically, and in extracurricular activities, but we clearly aren’t seeing their full potential. Even for the most gifted people, the physical, emotional, and intellectual transition from childhood to adulthood is a difficult one with lots of ups and downs. Fuente saw the potential in Lynch and didn’t give up on him through that difficult first year as a starting quarterback.  He’s reaping the benefits of Lynch’s development because he was patient and took the long view; the result will be the same if we take the long view with our middle school children. 

3. Model positive behavior. While middle school students don’t have a reputation for being the best listeners, they are always watching.  As they develop a sense of their place in the world, they will look to those closest to them as role models.  If we handle difficult situations with integrity and treat others with respect and dignity, I’m confident that these behaviors will impact our children in a positive way.  While I don’t know what Fuente is like behind closed doors, he seems like a stand-up guy.  He doesn’t gloat, doesn’t publically blame coaches, players, or referees, and maintains an even keel regardless of the outcome of the game. In the midst of the celebration that ensued at the Liberty Bowl following the Ole Miss victory, a reporter asked what it felt like to beat Ole Miss?  Fuente calmly replied:  “I’m glad that we are bowl eligible. We’ll enjoy this today and start thinking about a difficult conference game at Tulsa in 6 days…” It’s the perfect example of modeling positive behavior when our culture is filled with over-the-top celebrations and tireless self-promoters. 

4. Keep your options open. While Lynch’s play has been inspiring, I’ve read that he’s on track to graduate too.  He doesn’t know how long and profitable his athletic career will be, so it’s always important to keep other options open, too.  Coach Fuente has made it a point for his players to be true scholar-athletes who work towards graduating and preparing for life after football. I think it’s an important lesson to share with our middle school students, particularly those who are like me when I was 13 years-old and convinced that I would have a long career in Major League Baseball.

Even if this year’s Tiger football team doesn’t win another game, I’ll be rooting for a coach, quarterback, and team that persevered through the #FreePianoMan movement and brought the Memphis football program to the unchartered territory of national relevance.  As always, thanks for reading. 

Most Sincerely, 

Mike Boyer
Head of Middle School

P.S. In researching this blog post, I learned that Jacob Karam is a second-year law student at the University of Houston. 

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