Nov. 28, 2012
by Chris Weinman
Every Friday night in the fall, when a group of more than 100 Vanderbilt men gather to make their final preparations for the following day's football game, there is a moment in time when X's and O's fall by the wayside.
For the better part of an hour, those Commodores trade in their tactical discussions in favor of connecting with each one another on a deeply personal level. One at a time, a student-athlete and a Vanderbilt staff member stand before the group and share their most revealing stories of loss and triumph.
While the practice is not all that uncommon among athletic squads trying to build lasting bonds between their members, bringing those moments into the middle of the season is a bit of an anomaly. But Head Coach James Franklin sees great value in building a sense of family within his squad, especially the night before that group must band together on the gridiron. And especially for a football team with such great numbers of people from varying walks of life.
"On a basketball team, you've got 12-15 players," Franklin explained. "It's easier to get to know people on a more in-depth level. But whatever the number is on whatever sport it is, I think everybody is working toward that.
"It's a little more challenging on a football team. You're constantly working to try to build connections and relationships. I think that's when you have a chance to build something special, when people truly care about one another."
Team members consider Franklin's experiment a success. Junior offensive lineman Wesley Johnson believes the Commodores were already a tight-knit group, but knows that the Friday night exercise has had many benefits.
"With 100 guys on the team it's hard to get close to everybody, even though I do feel that our chemistry is something that really separates our team from other schools," Johnson said. "But it's hard to get to know everybody real close. Especially for the young guys entering the program that probably don't know some of the [older guys] as well, it's a bonding experience that brings people closer together."
Senior defensive end Johnell Thomas shared his life story during a preseason team meeting. The Orlando native spent his formative years bouncing around after a series of evictions rendered his family basically homeless. He was eventually taken in by an assistant football coach at Boone High School, where he excelled both athletically and academically.
"Johnell's whole life story--where he's come from and how he's climbed to this position.... Johnell's blessed," junior defensive back Javon Marshall said. "I've always respected Johnell, but just hearing that story makes me respect him even more, everything he's been through."
For Thomas' part, baring his soul in front of 100 teammates was a cathartic experience.
"For me, personally, it wasn't hard at all," Thomas said. "I see all these guys as my brothers, so it definitely wasn't hard for me. I felt all the love. It's just a big family in there. It's a lot harder getting in front of a Vandy classroom and giving a presentation."
While Thomas recognizes that his share is beyond the norm, he notes that there are takeaways from hearing about each person's hardships.
"You're touched by every single story," Thomas said. "Coach Franklin's share with us was probably the one that touched me the most. It was really personal, and for him to get to that level with us, it definitely brought everyone--players and coaches--closer together as a family."
That sense of family is exactly what Franklin was striving for when he introduced the share program to his squad, and the Commodores have embraced it wholeheartedly. Players like Marshall look forward to their opportunity to be a part of a tradition that has helped the Vanderbilt football team become a more cohesive unit.
"I want to give the team something that they can carry on for life," Marshall said. "(Johnell's share), that's something I'll always remember. I want to be able to give the team something they can remember and take with them for life, and know that I gave them something they can eventually tell their kids."