Practicing life lessons: Virtue First shapes team, builds character

May 2013 Posted in People
Kennedy Coach Randy Traeger’s goal is to develop men of character more than a winning football program. His Virtue First program was started in 2006.

Kennedy Coach Randy Traeger’s goal is to develop men of character more than a winning football program. His Virtue First program was started in 2006.

By Brenna Wiegand

Kennedy High School football Coach Randy Traeger wants to be sure everyone is on the same page about the purpose of sports.

“Sports were actually created as an arena in which to practice life without the fear of death,” Traeger said. “In real life, learning about perseverance or whatever it is, you might die. In sports, because it’s this little thing that we set up, you’re not going to die. You might suffer, but who cares if you lose the game? We’ve totally gotten away from that.”

On May 9, he is hosting the third annual Virtue First Awards and Conference. The two-hour awards ceremony will feature an amazing line-up of extraordinary speakers who may help attendees change their life in an exceptional way. Their powerful personal presentations about virtue can reveal secrets to achieving life’s ambitions, overcoming barriers to success and how to live the good life, he said.

A few years ago Traeger, 33-year scriptor of football plays, started hammering out page-after-page of personal observations, ideas and goals in what has become a quest to change the culture … Our culture.

He labored long in creating a “playbook” with the depth and breadth to meet the challenge.

In 2006, he founded the Virtue First Foundation with a morality-based curriculum designed to be decisive yet not divisive.

“Every coach, every teacher or youth minister has tons of those ‘moments of truth’ when face-to-face with a kid and the opportunity to teach them something that will make them a better man or woman,” Traeger said. “At that learning moment, do I use it to do that – or do I do something else?”

What Traeger never anticipated was that Virtue First has as great an impact on those leaders who embrace the program as it does on the kids.

“In order to personify what they’re trying to give to the kids, they have to take it in themselves and make it their own, and that’s been just a powerful, powerful thing and very rewarding,” Traeger said.

Coming from Coach Traeger, the idea of putting the scoreboard second sounds a little surprising.

Virtue First Awards
& Conference

Mount Angel Festhalle
500 Wilco Hwy.
Thursday, May 9,
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Third annual event honoring teachers,
coaches, youth ministers, businesses
and others committed to promoting
virtue among the youth they serve.
Free and open to anyone 12 and older.
Desserts and refreshments served.

Call 503-845-6773 for information.

“People come up to me and say ‘You are not the same person you were.’ It’s true – it’s absolutely changed me,” he said.

One of his greatest lessons came at the hands of his son Derek (now playing for Willamette) when he was the star of his Kennedy football team. Derek challenged his dad’s decision to leave two guys off the bus.

“He comes in and says, ‘Dad we have to take those kids – they’re part of the team,’”  Traeger said. “In the end we worked real hard and found a way to do it.

“Here’s the excellence of the story: When we as coaches show our love for the weakest members, the strongest members look at that and think ‘If the coaches love those guys this much, how much do they love me?’ That’s the message Jesus Christ taught.

“How can you learn those kinds of lessons if you’re just out there trying to win a playoff?” Traeger said. “What a waste of time compared to learning lessons for life. That’s what we’re after.”

“That first year we implemented it school wide at the high school, about the time people were questioning whether this was another canned product or a waste of our time, we had one of our three-a-year accreditation visits,” said Troy Stoops, Mount Angel School District Superintendent.

“They pointed out our character development program as outstanding and recommended we expand it to reach even more kids,” Stoops added.

Two years in, the data doesn’t lie.

Stoops is sure Virtue First played a big part in the significant decrease in office referrals and behavior incidents. Attendance is up, too.

“Randy has been in the public eye for a long time, you know – the fire department, being mayor, coaching and being with Traeger Industries,” Stoops said. “He could expand this and go places we can’t imagine.”

Senior football player Nathan Bielenberg was one of the team’s main leaders last fall. He said what he learned from the Virtues First program has benefitted him on the field and in the classroom.

“During games I would encourage the team to have faith, and if some guy was getting his daubers down I’d come and cheer him up,” Bielenberg said. “It’s not all about scoring points. It’s about getting to know your teammates better – it’s pretty much learning life lessons from football, and I’ve learned a lot.”

Though he’s played since he was small, sophomore quarterback Noah Giberson was surprised at how big Virtue First had become at Kennedy High School.

“Coach Traeger makes practice fun,” Giberson said. “He’s one of those guys who when someone makes a mistake, he’s not that guy to get all mad. He’s trying to make us better men, not just football players.”

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