Dana Safa Bernardino
On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Kent Babb, a sports feature writer for The Washington Post and acclaimed author of Across the River: Life, Death, and Football in an American City and Not A Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, Kent sat down with Sam and discussed investing in your players as individuals, the stigma surrounding mental health, and the importance of communication as a leader.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Babb shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: Why’d you write the book?
Kent: I’d written the story about Brice and the Karr program back in 2018 and he and I hit it off. I had a literary agent contact me and see if I was interested in expanding it, and kind of the rest is history. But it definitely changed me. It changed how I parent, changed how I work, changed what I value.
At the beginning it changed me because it was really easy for me to not think about the people that I work with at the Washington Post and how they got to where they got, you just assume, ‘well, we all got here and we must be high achievers. We must come from the same place. Must have had some of the same breaks.’
And I know that’s not true now. Like I look at somebody, particularly like a person of color, and wonder how many little miracles it took to get them to a place like this. I come from a place of deep poverty in the rural south. But I still had some luck, I still had some advantages that a lot of people didn’t have.
And I think it just made me more curious about how difficult it is for some people in this country to succeed. I mean, not to become a billionaire or a millionaire, but just to succeed.
Sam: And it’s in the experience in the book, you cover the team over the course of a season. How much time did you spend with the team?
Kent: About a year kind of off and on. I mean, I live right outside of Washington DC and our daughter was about one and a half at the time that I sort of reported. So me moving to New Orleans wasn’t an option. So I flew back and forth 19 times. Sometimes I would go down for a day. I went down for a week a couple of times, and I would try to make it very productive and to try to be in as many sort of things. It didn’t seem like football. I wanted to be in classes and I wanted it to be in the meetings. Things that I think a lot of people don’t think make a book, but the truth is that’s exactly what makes a book.
It’s the everyday-ness of the identifiable things that really gives you kind of that power I think in, yes, the games were important, but if I had to pick between being in a meeting between Brice Brown, the head coach, and a players parent, or a player, or being in Joe Thomas‘s house with his mom, versus going to a game it’s a no brainer for me.
I mean, for the most part, I knew what was going to happen in those games. You know, Karr was going to win. I had no idea what was going to happen in somebody’s house or when the phone rang at three in the morning and a kid or his parents are calling one of the football coaches because some crisis just happened.
Sam: I was lucky enough to play high school football for a great coach, and I ended up coaching high school football, and I coached in south Florida, in an area called Hialeah, and I remember the most surprising thing to me going from being a player to a coach was how much coaches sacrificed.
Like, I don’t think I realized that as a player how you would go to practice and coaches would show up. But once I was a coach, I’d realized these were people with full-time jobs and oftentimes maybe not getting paid much like to coach high school football, which I learned as well.
What was the most surprising part of the experience for you once you were kind of in the trenches?
Kent: I think how easy the football part is. The coaching of the calling of the plays is the easy part, I think. And it’s not easy, but compared to everything else, that’s the easy part.
Second would be teaching the players how to execute, like here’s what’s in the coach’s mind, here’s how to actually run this route crisply, catch the ball, keep running, in this order. I mean, it’s a little orchestra that’s happening, every play, but the hardest thing is sort of dealing with all of the drama that’s going on around you.
I mean, to your point, high school coaches in particular and coaches in general have more time around these young people than parents, than friends. I mean, this is a particularly vulnerable age for kids who are in high school, but especially kids who were coming from a very difficult background where they might have grown up in poverty without running water, with irregular access to food, things like that.
And a lot of these young people are angry. A lot of them don’t know where to turn. And in this country, I think too often, people who look like me, I am extremely white as I joke, I think it’s really easy for people who look like me and who live in the places that I live to say, ‘well, it’s easy to make it if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if you just work hard, study hard, you have the same access to opportunity as anybody.’ And I know now that that’s just not true, it’s just not. Even people in these communities, people who were supposed to be guides or leaders or coaches oftentimes give the old trope of, ‘if you don’t straighten up, you’ll be dead or in prison by the time you’re 18 or 20 or 25.’ And a lot of these kids take that seriously. Kids believe what adults tell them often. And if an adult says that to a kid, they say, ‘well, okay, what do I have to strive for then? If I’m going to die anyway, if I’m going to be in prison anyway.’
The hardest thing is also the simplest thing. It’s a personal investment. It’s actually finding what these young people are motivated by. A coach is a social worker, a teacher, a parent, a big brother, a security guard. So many jobs wrapped up into one. And they’re with these young people for 6, 7, 8 hours a day sometimes. At least in the Edna Karr program in New Orleans, I don’t think there’s anybody more influential than the high school football coaches and so many coaches and business leaders, managers, whatever, sort of skate.
And if they did what the car coaches do and that invests in every single individual, not player, individual, that’s how you change a team, a school, a community, the world. At least that’s what I believe now.
Sam: Yeah. It’s like, that’s the future of work. When you think about the young people who make up a program like that, I think there was a quote in the book that said there was something like the day you stop trying to save a kid is the day that you should stop coaching? Something to that effect. What do you think? And again, you have a full-time job too, right? You have coaches and managers around you every day as well. What are things like? Did you ever wish you had a Coach Brown around you?
Kent: Well, I like to think that all of us had a Coach Brown somewhere, maybe not as profane, maybe not as intimidating, Brice is 400 pounds. He’s loud, profane, kinda angry all the time. Like he’s actually hilarious to me, but to the players, he’s like this mountain of a human being who’s quite intimidating.
But look, I mean, like I said, I grew up in pretty rough circumstances and my family and I, my dad wasn’t really in the picture and my mom raised three of us all alone. You don’t want a social security check every month. And I had mentors who didn’t sort of give me like the company line, they actually invested in me as a person and found out what I was motivated by what I was driven by, what I responded to, what I hated, what I shut down, on what I wanted to volunteer, what I protected.
And through those people, I just believe the rungs of success in our society are not necessarily like a degree on the wall. It’s the people who sort of help you climb. And those people gave me a little bit of a boost every time. And I think that’s the same thing that Brice does. And these are kids who just too often, they don’t just think that they’re incapable of amazing things, they often think that they don’t deserve amazing things. And they were born into this community and in poverty. ‘I don’t have a chance, and more than that, I don’t deserve it.’ Well, that’s not true. I mean, we know that’s not true. The magic trick of teaching these young people that they can have a six figure salary, they can have a college degree, they can have a family, they can drive a nice car if that’s important to them, is very difficult. Getting them to actually believe that as hard. And it’s dirty work. I mean, I don’t envy it. I don’t think I personally have it in me to invest what it takes, but in these communities it takes a Brice Brown and his assistant coaches and I think we all have somebody like that in our lives. If we make it, so to speak, but it’s not often that the circumstances are life and death like it is on the West Bank of New Orleans.
I was never in danger growing up. I just didn’t have the TV on. My mom didn’t have the car we wish she had. But it wasn’t like if I drift down this alley, I might get shot tonight. It’s very different, and the stakes are just so damn high in communities like that.
Sam: Yeah. And it’s amazing that Coach Brice Brown or the coaches around a program like that oftentimes they’re the way that they are supported, whether it’s in the way that they’re paid or the way that the structure is almost doesn’t, is it fair to say that as a society, we don’t appreciate people like Brice, coaches like Brice?
Kent: I don’t think that we recognize the degree of difficulty. And I don’t think that we provide adequate resources to encourage people to be in that environment. Brice by all accounts should get out of that, and he’s paid okay. But he treats himself terribly. He’s clearly got some mental health problems with anxiety, maybe some mild depression, imposter syndrome.
I mean, this is an amazing coach, And I’ve covered the NFL, college football, I’ve covered sports at every possible level. I’ve written from the White House, from Lithuania, you name it. A lot of what I do is writing about leadership and management. And I don’t know that I’ve ever been around a better leader than Brice Brown. He just knows how to communicate in a way that’s incredibly effective. And again, I feel like I’m sort of simplifying this, but it’s because he spends time with every single one of the 100 players in his program. And if they need to be yelled at, he yells at them. If they need to be hugged, he hugs them. If they need a bite to eat, he takes them and gets it for them. It’s one of those things where it takes an incredible toll and I wish that others in Brice’s community and all of the Brice’s out there who are you even thinking about doing things like this and investing in young people or employees or workforce, whatever, would understand that it does take a toll and to provide mental health resources, support.
We’re just now in our society getting to a point where we’re de-stigmatizing mental health. And benefits, insurance barely covers it and you have to go look for it. It’s really hard, especially during the pandemic, to find mental health treatment. And that’s a tragedy, I think that’s terrible.
I think in 30 years, we’re going to look back and say, what were you doing? Why wasn’t that free? Why weren’t people pushed toward that? Why didn’t we make fun of people for being anxious or depressed? And even more in the black community I learned that there’s still this toughen up, rub some dirt on it. This is a hardscrabble black community and a football program where toxic masculinity is the temptation of the second, and for you to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an appointment with a therapist today,’ sadly is not an okay thing to say. And that’s something we’ve got to change. Or also we’re going to lose the Brice Browns that we’ve got, and we need more, not fewer.
Sam: Was there anything in the process? I picked up the book in DC at Politics and Prose, which I’m sure you probably know or frequented. I’d imagine a lot of people picked up the book, saw a football book, they read the jacket and they got into it and maybe some of the things or some of the emotions they felt surprised them. To business leaders, what do you want to hit home to a C-level executive or an HR leader who happened to read this book? What do you want them to walk away with from the experience?
Kent: Well, the thing is, like I told you before, I think that this is ultimately a book about management and leadership.
I mean, yes, it’s packaged like a football book because it’s about a football program, but it’s about how to lead in the harshest possible circumstances. The lessons that I was around and wrote about are universal, they’re applicable to anything. And I think it all comes down to, as I’ve said, investment in individuals and where I think that managers and bosses fail is trying to make someone into something they’re not, and not taking the time to figure out who that person is, who that individual is and what their stimulus-response is.
What do you care about? What are you driven by now? I know that’s hard. It’s absolutely hard. But it’s also the job. And at the end of the day, I think that is the easiest thing to skip. And it’s the most important thing to being a good manager. And communication is the other thing, just don’t have people guess, give them the real. That’s the saying in the book, just, I understand that we have this corporate “speak” that we have to say things a certain way and we have to not make people uncomfortable. Well, sometimes people are uncomfortable by uncertainty. And if you help them with that and tell them about your expectations and help them to understand and not guess all the time, it seems so easy when you put it like that.
But just in my experience, my own personal experience, I think the bad managers are the ones who don’t communicate. They don’t see problems coming, particularly when it comes to mental health or crisis or whatever is too late. It’s like being thirsty. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already really dehydrated. It’s too late. By the time I know that I need to see a therapist or talk to somebody, it’s really far down the road. And the great leaders are the ones who can anticipate that and see kind of the writing on the wall, make resources available, just say, ‘Hey man, what’s going on? How are you doing? How can I help you? What do you need?’
It seems so simple, but it’s so easy to skip because we’re all busy. We all got a thousand things going on. We’ve got a pandemic. It’s easy to put that aside. And I’m afraid that that’s going to be forgotten. It’s too easy to be lazy. It would be a real tragedy if that goes away. And again, I don’t think it will go away entirely, that’s just what I want people to take away from this, is that what Brice and those coaches are doing, it’s not unbelievable, it’s not even all that creative. They are unapologetic on how they put things. They’re brutally honest sometimes. Cause it’s all about this quick detour to the truth. And we don’t have time for BS, we don’t have time for sugarcoating things. We’re going to tell you what our expectations are, what happens if you fail, what happens if you don’t talk to us, and if you succeed, you might just be part of something really amazing. I think that’s something that we can all be part of.
Sam: Pride panel stories, looking through the lens of someone looking at it for my own business, and I massacred the book in a good way. I’ve got notes, everything is dog-eared. But the build a team on a foundation of individualism was one thing I wrote, and it really hit home as I think about how many people complained to me about millennials and gen Z being different and blah, blah, versus like, what you just said, communicating and getting into everybody’s individual strengths.
And the second thing was pride panel. And, even to the point where I’m like, ‘how do I recreate that,’ even though I know in that environment, it’s a much different monster, but those were two big highlights I had.
Kent: I think it just comes down to conditioning. We’re so used to conditioning training for whatever crisis is happening or if somebody is trying to steal your passwords. I had to take training last week about unconscious bias. These are all really valuable to kind of mind your blind spots. But one thing that we, a lot of times don’t get into is the conditioning of helping to understand what we’re after and being honest with each other, being honest with ourselves. And so what pride panel does is it cuts to the chase and it’s a conditioning exercise where these young people are made deliberately uncomfortable. They recognize dangers and it’s a simulation almost, and it’s done at midnight when you’re sleep-deprived and maybe a little hungry and you’re under duress, and what they want to do is teach these kids to think first and act later, not be emotional. To basically psychologically get into their heads and rattle around a little bit so that if there’s an actual crisis, if you get pulled over by the cops or if somebody pulls a gun on, you don’t freak out.
It’s not the first time somebody’s ever insulted you or disrespected you or gotten in your face now. Yeah. Like that’s not for the boardroom. That’s not for most offices, but there are ways to connect with everyone, you know? Like the millennial thing and the older people thing, and I’m about to turn 40 so I’m kind of in the middle and I’ve got to communicate with everybody. How we communicate hasn’t changed, just the method. It’s like, we still communicate. And we still want the same things as we did a hundred years ago. How we deliver them is what’s changed.
I don’t think people are fundamentally different. I think that it’s just how we say it, how we express it. And if we just talk and if we get past some of that, if we close our mouth and open our ears, maybe we’ll find some commonality. I’m a white guy who went into this all black environment in a football program. And I was fascinated, not just by how different we were, but by how much we have in common. And if we just talk and I ask questions and I listen, and if I have some understanding and compassion, humanity, and I see each of those people as a person, as an individual with a path, then that’s all it takes. You don’t feel like an outsider anymore. You know how to communicate, you know how to get along and then you root for each other. It’s an experience that I was really sad had to end, but I’m so glad that I experienced it.
Sam: How are they? How’s Brice and the team doing today?
Kent: Everybody’s doing pretty well. Last week, actually, they did have, or two weeks ago, they did have a player who was gunned down, and that’s really sad. And I reached out to him and it was a kid that I interacted with, he was a freshman rehabbing his knee when I was reporting the book and probably had a bright future. And look, the thing that’s as troubling or more troubling for me than just like a kid who gets murdered is just how every day that is. Like for the day that had happened, a lot of the players and coaches were posting tributes, and this is a tragedy and we will love you forever DeRon. And then the next day, everybody kind of goes on about their business. It’s just something that happens in this community. And I don’t know if that’s something I’ll ever get used to.
That should not be normal anywhere, and sadly I think it is. I always tell people that when somebody calls me and tells me that somebody that I knew or they know who got shot, if they tell me what the urgency is, if you and I would tell you if I told you I was on a fender bender. It’s just something that happens. It sucks, but it happens. It shouldn’t, and I really hate that that happened as much as anything. I hate that it’s so normal there. Part of me wants those guys to get out, go away. And part of me knows just how necessary they are and I hope they never leave. So it’s tough. I root for them and I care about them and I love them. And it’s a community in crisis and I, I hate to see him hurt.
Sam: Yeah. The other line I wrote down, and I actually put it on my kind of game plan that I have every day at work and at the end of every year, I kind of bring up like a lot of thoughts I have, and this one stuck with me cause I read it right around new year’s and it was, ‘is it right that you have to give a life to save a life?’ And I’m still processing it. It’s a really powerful line in the book.
Kent: Yeah. And that’s one of Brice’s sort of go to lines, he’s got a lot. You got to reach them before you can teach them. And that’s probably the most haunting of them all, is you have to give a life to save a life.
I think Brice is willing to make that ultimate sacrifice. And it just shouldn’t take that. In a lot of places, a lot of people in this country feel like they have to make that trade. And I don’t know if you do have to, but I think it’s really unfortunate that people believe that they might have to. And that’s what it takes. Thank God for people who are like that and are willing to make those sacrifices, but I just wish that this was a society where that wasn’t even a thing.
Sam: Kent, I appreciate it. I have one final question for you. Again, I think as you read a book like this, not just like the kids in New Orleans, but young athletes in communities all over the country who will eventually graduate and go on into a workforce today that has its own set of challenges and how we appreciate and respect and love and trust and build up. Sharing that as a background, I want to ask you, what is your hope for the future of work?
Kent: A couple things, I guess, but for one, I hope that we don’t tie our identities to it. People always ask me, ‘what did you learn from early in the pandemic and that initial shock?’ And it was, for me, how I had for too long identified with my job.
I have tied my entire identity to what I do at work. And that’s dumb. I shouldn’t have done that. The people who actually care about me are at home. I also like just people to tell me, ‘Hey, look, I know that was hard. I appreciate what you did’, even if it’s not like the final result, it’s just, I appreciate the process. I appreciate the degree of difficulty. I think the future of work will include encouragement and possibly free mental health care especially in demanding jobs, which most of them are. I think that there should be some understanding on how difficult some of this is, and I hope people just have an appreciation for how hard it was to get to wherever they were.
It’s hard to start any job and just think about all the little steps that it took to walk through that door years or decades before. I’m a little bit of a work-from-home person as it is. I liked that there’s an office available, but I’m all about kind of the marketplace of ideas, but we are all different.
And I think at the end of the day, the biggest thing is that we all are stimulated by and are productive in different ways. And if people understand that we’re not all the same, we’re not all this blur of automatons, then you can have a better appreciation and everybody will be a little bit happier. We might be even more productive too. Somehow a daily newspaper gets put out, with no access to an office. We did it. It’s going to be okay. If you don’t want to come in the office today and sit there in front of a computer, okay, go do something you’re supposed to be doing then. I’m for Montessori work, that’s what I’m for down the road and I hope that’s in the future.
Sam: Kent, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.
Kent: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
Topics Discussed: Coaching, Future of Work, Leadership, Communication
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