Disappointed by the behavior of his players off the field, Matt Labrum, head coach of the Union High School Cougars in Roosevelt, Utah, suspended his entire football team last month. Several players had been skipping class and cyber-bullying classmates. After a loss to Judge Memorial Catholic High School, Labrum told his team—all 41 players—to turn in their jerseys and equipment. They would have to earn back the privilege to play.
“We felt like everything was going in a direction that we didn’t want our young men going,” Labrum told The Deseret News. “We felt like we needed to make a stand.”
That stand worked: After a week of taking character development classes, cleaning up town streets, fixing fences, and performing other community service work, all but eight players earned their jerseys back in time for their homecoming game against Emory High School on Sept. 27. The Cougars lost the game 41-21 but gained something greater in the process.
At a 7 a.m. meeting on the Saturday after the Judge game, Labrum gave his players a letter titled “Union Football Character.” In that letter, the coach instructed the young men to perform services for their own families, attend all classes, and maintain good grades.
“We got an emotional response from the boys,” Labrum said. “I think it really meant something to them, which was nice to see that it does mean something.”
Not a single player fought the coach’s decision. Not a single parent complained.
“I do support it,” said Jenn Rook, the mother of one of the suspended players. “These boys are not going to be hurt by this. It’s a good life lesson. … It’s not a punishment. I see it as an opportunity to do some good in the community.”
Labrum’s decision drew attention from media outlets across the nation, although the coach insisted he wasn’t the story—instead, it was about building character.
“We have an opportunity to be an inspiration to an entire nation by doing the right things, by following through—and not just this week,” Labrum said prior to the Emory game. “We need to continue to do the right things.”
The Cougars lost again last week to Morgan High School but finally broke their losing streak last night by soundly beating Carbon High School 42-0.