H.S. Football: West Milford seniors pay it forward

West Milford High School football coach Don Dougherty is teaching his players how to “Punt, Pass & Read.”

The New Jersey coach told NorthJersey.com that when he took over as head of the varsity team in 2012, his focus was as much on devising offensive and defensive strategy as it was on what his players are doing off the field.

“From the beginning I felt the need and importance for our student athletes to give back to their community,” Dougherty said. “I wanted to put academics and athletics together for a good cause. Introducing that combination to the younger kids in our community makes a lot of sense and it promotes the importance of education and hometown pride.”

The effort also puts school sports in the proper context as a model for life, one that shows students there’s more important things than the numbers on the scoreboard.

Six years ago Dougherty launched the “Punt, Pass & Read” program to get West Milford players into local elementary schools, where they spend two days reading to youngsters throughout the school district.

Now, the program is spearheaded by seniors on the team who don their game jerseys to visit all six of the district’s elementary schools. Each year, they spend about an hour at each school reading to and talking with students, and the result is bringing the community closer together, they said.

“It’s really cool to see the students’ reactions and their smiles when we walk into the classrooms,” said senior captain A.J. Bakunas. “It means a lot to them for us to come in and read and just spend time with them. I know about this program when last year’s seniors participated and it’s something I’ve looked forward to being a part of.”

“I saw a lot of joy and smiles on the kids’ faces,” added senior Dylan Purdy. “They all wanted to interact with us and I thought that was great. I hope this program makes the kids want to read more. The younger students look up to us as role models and if they see their idols interested in reading hopefully it will want them to read more.”

Dougherty contends local elementary students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program.

“The entire week is a humbling experience. It allows the seniors to reflect and see where they came from and how far they’ve come as student athletes. We’re constantly preaching hometown pride and staying home. This program touches on everything and it’s something we plan on continuing for years to come,” he said.

“All the students and staff at the schools really embrace the program and it’s something they look forward to every year,” Dougherty told NorthJersey. “The younger students ask the players for autographs and the teachers get to spend time with their former students who are now seniors in high school. It’s just a rewarding experience for everyone involved.”

Parents “want their children to develop into loving, morally upright, and hard-working adults who preserve close ties to their families,” according to the “Culture of American Families” report from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Parents believe that “fame, athletics, popularity, and power matter little in the larger scheme of their children’s lives,” so it’s a powerful dynamic when athletics can be a means to forming the good character that parents want for their children.

The Positive Coaching Alliance helps coaches, leaders, and parents understand double-goal coaching: winning and teaching character.