By SHELLY WILKISON
Some have referred to it as “the big give,” but for Michael Wilson, the gift of a football field to Liberty Hill five years ago was just something he could do to make things better for kids.
“Just leave it better than you found it,” says Wilson, who admits that building a community football field may have been one of his crazier ideas.
“It was a crazy idea. I grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper and drew the plan at my dining room table,” he said, adding that he had lots of help from individual and corporate volunteers to build the $300,000 facility at City Park.
But it’s the philosophy of making things better than you found them that drove Wilson, the longest serving president of Liberty Hill Youth Football & Cheer, to go the distance.
Believing it was time to involve more parents in the leadership of the organization, Wilson officially stepped aside Tuesday. For someone who has invested so much personal time and energy and been the face of Liberty Hill youth football, the transition from president to parent is an emotional one.
“Going from youth football guy to just being a parent is different,” said Wilson. “It’s strange to sit in the stands and yell, but it’s good to see it from a different point of view.”
In a small town full of football fans and football dads, Wilson has stood out in recent years as the champion for volunteerism. First as a coach, then as president of a growing recreational sports league and again as a member of the City’s Parks & Recreation Board, Wilson used his love for the game to teach boys and girls the value of teamwork and sportsmanship. And in the process, he brought adults together for a common purpose — putting kids first.
For Wilson, who played the game from elementary school through college, teaching the fundamentals of the game was the task at hand. But in the end, it was about raising children and giving back to the community.
“I can’t tell you how many games I’ve won and lost,” Wilson said. “To me, youth sports should be about teaching techniques and good sportsmanship. There’s plenty of time to be concerned about wins and losses.”
Wilson, vice president of operations at HL Chapman in Leander, became involved in Liberty Hill’s youth football program in 2007. He laughs as he recalls the Rafflemania basket his wife, Melissa Wilson, won in November 2006 that contained a free registration for the program. In summer 2007, their oldest son, Justin, announced he wanted to play.
“My wife was totally against him playing football. But we used that free registration. She cried all the way when I was going to sign him up,” he said.
Mrs. Wilson, who would quickly become as involved as her husband as a volunteer in the organization, encouraged him to help coach so he could watch over their son.
“I knew the way I was,” Wilson said. “I didn’t want to coach (at first) because I’m either all in it or all out.”
Wilson went from being an assistant coach to his son’s youth junior varsity team to head coach, to running the league and spearheading a movement to build a football field. Mrs. Wilson quickly volunteered as team mom, then served as a member of the Board of Directors and was responsible for much of the fundraising. Together, the Wilsons and in fact, their entire family became heavily vested in the organization and making things better.
Their son Justin, now 15, chose the number 38 for his first jersey because his dad was 38 years old at the time. Today, sophomore Justin Wilson is a quick guard for the Liberty Hill High School varsity Panthers and wears the number 56. As part of the offensive line, Wilson is often a lead blocker for Head Coach Jerry Vance’s team, which recently earned the District Championship title following a win over Lampasas.
“That group was special,” Wilson said, remembering his first team of 18 third and fourth graders. “Sixteen of them had never played football before. The best coaching job I did was that first year. We didn’t win a lot, but we took 18 kids and got better every day.”
Wilson still has a close relationship with the players on his first team, many of whom are now playing football for Liberty Hill High School. Wilson said he attends most junior varsity and freshman games to show support for his former players, and his son’s varsity teammates come to the Wilson house after Friday home games.
“That’s my job now,” Wilson said, pausing to hold back the emotion. “They’re like part of the family. I think we taught them some good habits, how to be safe and to love the game.”
A football life
Wilson grew up in Grand Prairie where he played youth football on a team that lost only two games in four years. When his parents divorced, he moved in the fifth grade with his mother to Leander and joined a team that “didn’t win much. It was a culture shock.
“I had to learn sportsmanship, and I had to teach myself how to lose,” he said. “You have to learn how to accept a loss before you can appreciate a win.”
As a boy larger than many his own age, Wilson had to play with older boys as his Leander youth team was part of the Pop Warner Youth Football organization, which separates players based on their size rather than age.
Wilson said his own youth football experience shaped his philosophy as a coach.
“I decided when I started coaching to teach kids they can lose a game and not have to be upset about it,” he said. “The loss shouldn’t effect you much past the game. By supper time, it should be all over.”
When Wilson became active in his son’s football program, he encouraged the Board to leave Pop Warner because he felt it was more important to keep kids together by age, rather than weight.
To say Wilson loves the game would be understating his passion for sports. He lettered 10 times at Leander High School — three times in football, three times in basketball, three times in baseball and once in track.
But it was his love for football that took him to Ranger Junior College on a football scholarship, and later to McMurry University in Abilene. He played tight end and was a punter.
At one time, he dreamed of going professional, but knee injuries convinced him he would rather walk than play.
“I tell the kids that if it gets to where they don’t love the game anymore, they should stop playing,” he said. “Football is a collision sport and it’s too hard on the body. They shouldn’t play it for anyone else.”
Wilson admits he has a lot of opinions when it comes to coaching football — most of them based on his own experience as a player through the years.
“The good of sports to me — any sport — is just about the discipline. Learning how to work as a team is important,” he said.
As a coach, Wilson starts every player in every game. Every player gets time in the game, but not because the rules of the league say so — that’s what Wilson believes is best. In the end, it isn’t about winning a game, it’s about raising kids.
“Mike Wilson is a coach who never gives up on a player, no matter what skill level the athlete is at,” said Kasey D. Cauble, vice president of LHYFC for the past five years. “We had a spring league football team once that Mike was head coaching and he saw to it that every kid on the team scored a touchdown that season. A lot of those kids will never score another touchdown and those kids will remember that for the rest of their lives.”
Denise Sims, a two-year member of the LHYFC Board, said serving with Wilson helped her discover an opportunity for personal growth.
“Words cannot express my never-ending gratitude for the opporrunities he has created, the example he has been to me and my kids and the sense of pride I feel when I drive by our field, wear our parent shirts, pass out my boys’ football pictures or see our league in the newspaper,” Ms. Sims said.
“The proudest thing that can happen as a coach is having a parent want their kids to play for you,” he said. “It’s not winning nine games in a row. I’ve had teams with losing records and undefeated teams.”
While it is common to see some football parents recording games, Wilson said he refuses to watch the videos until after the season ends.
“I never watched the game videos during the season. I don’t want to nitpick the game to death, and I was afraid that kind of stuff would turn me into something I don’t like,” he said.
Wilson said football becomes a business as early as high school. That’s when a coach’s job becomes attached to a paycheck and a team’s performance determines whether he keeps the paycheck.
While Wilson remains true to his way of thinking about youth football and its purpose, he admits he made some compromises earlier this year when Liberty Hill Youth Football & Cheer merged with a startup organization that played in the Hill Country Youth Football League. Before the merger, the primary difference was whether or not teams should continue playing together season after season. LHYFC drafted players each season.
The Hill Country league includes teams from communities that play in LHHS’ district. Coaches teach their teams the strategy and techniques played at their respective high schools. In Liberty Hill, teams learn Coach Vance’s Slot-T system.
“It was a hard decision to merge and jump to a different league, but it was a good thing and it was best for the community,” Wilson said. “It was a matter of the adults getting out of the way and doing what’s best for the kids. Both sides had to put away opinions and feelings.
“We were splitting the community. But together, we restructured the organization,” he said, adding that 165 boys and girls were enrolled in LHYFC this fall as players and cheerleaders.
“It is good (playing the game as LHHS teaches it) because it gives them (youth players) a head start and that has to be a help,” Wilson said. “Our coaches had to learn the system. It made them work a little harder, but that’s okay.”
Liberty Hill was a good fit
Wilson married Melissa, his high school sweetheart, and he later went to work for HL Chapman, a company his father-in-law started in 1974. HL Chapman specializes in digging trenches for companies looking to lay pipeline, water and sewer lines, power and telephone lines. Some years ago, the company was purchased by a Houston-based corporation that added an office in Illinois. As Vice President of Operations, Wilson’s job after 21 years is to keep the company profitable by focusing on its financials.
As the Leander school system continued to grow, the Wilsons looked to Liberty Hill because they wanted to raise their two sons in a smaller community.
“The first football game we went to (in the old Panther Stadium), sold us on Liberty Hill,” he said. “It was a big crowd, standing room only. I knew it was the right fit for us.”
When he first started coaching for LHYFC, teams were practicing at the field between what is now the Liberty Hill Junior High and Liberty Hill Intermeidate schools. The field was rough and worn, there were no bleachers for parents, no lights and no restrooms.
“I said if we could find somewhere to put it, that I’d build a field,” Wilson said.
The offer sent Board members scurrying to talk with local churches and other property owners, and then resulted in a conversation with city officials about the possible use of City Park on CR 200. The City agreed to allow HL Chapman to build the field that would be donated back to the City.
“A lot of good people helped and we picked up a lot of rocks,” Wilson laughed.
Wilson sought favors from contractors with whom he regularly did business. They hauled in loads and loads of dirt and installed a sprinkler system. His wife’s parents donated money for grass, and money was raised to install a fence. A concession stand, electronic scoreboard and huge rocks for landscaping were donated.
“It was a tremendous effort,” Wilson said, adding that his mother-in-law had described the effort as “the big give.” In the end, the facility, which now includes lights and bleachers, is valued at more than $300,000.
Wilson said the football field was a labor of love for his entire family.
“It was a big deal — time away from my family to build a field,” he said. “But, it wasn’t about my time, it was the time away from the family that was the sacrifice.”
But looking back, Wilson said it was all worth it. In the process, his sons, Justin and Blake, 10, learned firsthand about the spirit of volunteerism that continues to drive the organization.
It all became crystal clear to Wilson this summer when 18 teenagers from the Fightin’ Panther football team showed up unannounced for the first day of youth football practice.
“Justin came back and helped me coach,” said Wilson, still fighting the tears. “And he brought 17 players with him. That reaches beyond the football game and shows that we’re making good people.”
Wilson, who is now also volunteering as a coach on Blake’s youth basketball team, said he spent his last year as president documenting everything to make the transition smoothe for those coming behind him.
“My goal is that next year no one will be able to tell the difference,” Wilson said. “That’s the way it should be. It was never about me. It was always about the kids.”