Why We Play: A High School Coach’s Tough Love Helped Propel Ike Reese to the NFL

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Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game. It’s part of the NFL’s PlayFootball.com.

Ike Reese thought his athletic future would be on a basketball court.

“I didn’t play football at all until I got to high school,’’ said Reese, “I thought I was going to be a basketball player.’’

Reese went to Aiken High School — not just one of the top basketball schools in Cincinnati, but in the entire state of Ohio. The football team at Aiken wasn’t on par: a .500 record would be considered a good season.

“I always tell people I went to a basketball school — I won’t say powerhouse — but we were certainly known more for basketball than football. We weren’t very good in football. We won 4-5 games.”

Reese said he was fortunate to have a good high school coach in Mike Brown, whose son Preston would go on to play linebacker for the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, and Jacksonville Jaguars.

“As a young player if you have good coaching, and that’s where it starts, coaching is so important,’’ Reese said. “Those guys are teachers, and how they teach and coach the kids will shape them, especially at that age.

“Are they getting anything out of it? Are they hanging on your every word? Are they taking what you’re saying to them and applying it to how they approach the game? Is it toughening them up? Does it teach them about camaraderie, accountability, and what teamwork is all about, relying on each other, how every guy all 11 players have a responsibility and how each individual has to do their job? Those are the qualities I think young boys need. That’s what coaching can provide. That’s what good coaching can provide. And if you can find a coach that can teach you those little anecdotes about life and how to carry yourself and apply yourself and all that, it’s working.’’

For Reese, a bit of coaching tough love helped jump-start his football career: Coach Brown told him in high school that he was better suited for football than basketball.

“He told me you have a much better chance of succeeding in this sport,’’ Reese said. “He crushed my hoop dreams. But I went out for football and never regretted it.”

For Reese, it worked out for the best. He gave up basketball, focused in on football, and eventually earned a starring role at Michigan State and nine-year NFL career as a linebacker and special teams standout with the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons. 

Now, 14 years after Reese’s last NFL game, his teenage son Elijah is playing football. Elijah began playing youth flag football in Southern New Jersey and is now on the high school team at Gateway High. 

The elder Reese, who is now the host of Marks and Reese on SportsRadio 94WIP in Philadelphia, said he hopes his son gets that same good advice from his coaches.  

“If (a young player) enjoys playing football, and they enjoy playing for their coach, and that coach is a good teacher, it’s helping you as a parent,” said Reese. “Coaches can give kids good advice, and when a kid hears it from the coach, and it’s the same thing his parents are telling him it can make an impact.

“The most fun I had in school was playing football — it’s just so much of a team sport than any other sport,” Reese added. “That’s why I was eager for my son to play on the team when he got to ninth grade. There’s nothing like those Friday night lights.”

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About the Author

Jeff Fisher
Jeff is an award-winning journalist and expert in the field of high school sports, underscored with his appearance on CNBC in 2010 to talk about the big business of high school football in America. Jeff turned to his passion for high school football into an entrepreneurial venture called High School Football America, a digital media company focused on producing original high school sports content for radio, television and the internet. Jeff is co-founder and editor-in-chief of High School Football America, which is a media partner with USA TODAY High School Sports.