PENNIES IN THE END ZONE
An incredible and true story of fierce determination, dedication and a promise fulfilled.
By Kim Goss
Published: Spring 1998
Rex Lingruen is the head football coach at Liberty Center High School in Liberty Center, Ohio, a Division 5 school with approximately 400 students. Their football team is often referred to in local newspapers as “The Sons of Liberty,” because many of the players are second and third generation players. A few are even fourth generation players—young men who have followed in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers!
Carrying on this tradition are the assistant coaches, themselves Liberty Center graduates and sons of fathers who played for the school as well. Heading up this team so steeped in generational tradition is Coach Lingruen, who has been with the school 25 years. After so many years, Lingruen never thought there could be anything left to make him raise his eyebrows.
But, as he discovered after his team’s 1998 State Championship win, you should never say never.
Pennies in the End Zone
Coach Lingruen began using the BFS program in 1991, and in the spring of 1992 the school sponsored a BFS Clinic which was attended by 200 kids. “The BFS staff did a great job, and they reinforced some of the things we had already been doing. It was a wonderful motivator for us as we headed into the 1993 season,” recalled Lingruen.
Attributing their great season to many of the BFS principles, Lingruen led their 1993 team to the finals. At the state championships, his team lost in a heartbreaker of a game during overtime. It was so close! Naturally, the coaches were in anguish after the game. “We had our heads down,” remembers Assistant Coach Tim Spiess, who is also Liberty’s strength coach.
Suddenly an adolescent, cheering roar came up from the stadium and the coaches turned to see about 20 Liberty High eighth graders charging out of the seats towards them. Kenzy Kern acted as spokesman for the group. “Don’t feel bad coaches. We’ll be back!” he vowed for the group, then turned and led the pack away towards the end zone. Momentarily taken aback, the coaches asked quizzically, “Where are you going now?”
As a group they turned and faced their coaches. Determined and serious, Kenzy looked the coaches each in the eyes and declared solemnly, “We’ve all got pennies. We’re going to bury them in the end zone, and when we’re seniors we’re going to win the state championship and dig them back up!” With that, the group marched off to attend to their task.
Those eight graders turned into seniors for the 1998 football season. “They were adamant when they made that promise,” recalls Coach Spiess. “Everyday, for four full years, has been uplifting because of their sacrifices and determination. Each kid has missed no more than once or twice a year since making that pact to win as seniors.”
It was indeed a year of dreams fulfilled. A mind-boggling 541 points were scored against Liberty’s opponents. For the playoffs, Liberty would have to face four previously undefeated teams with a combined record of 46-0 prior to their games against the Sons of Liberty. No team in all of Ohio football history had faced such a task.
The first two playoff games were come-from-behind victories while the semi-final game was a 44-8 blowout. However, the final state championship game at Massillon was where the pennies were buried. Their opponents were the Amanda-Clearcreek Aces who had only given up 27 points en route to a sparkling 13-0 record. With a 225-pound fullback and a 200-pound tailback with an offensive line that averaged 218-pounds, the Aces were a formidable power.
Just try to imagine the emotion Liberty felt as they returned to Paul Brown Tiger Stadium to play in front of the largest crowd in Ohio history for their classification. Think of the thousands of hours spent in the weight room, the preparation and the
sacrifices spent for this defining moment. Think about those pennies buried years ago in the end zone.
It wasn’t even close! Six different Liberty Center Tigers scored touchdowns with seven state records being set as the “Sons” clawed their way to a 49-8 state championship victory!
“After the game,” said Coach Spiess, “we dug around in various places around the end zone looking for those pennies. They were no where to be found, but not a single player gave it a second thought.” The mission had been completed; the promise fulfilled. Tears of joy replaced the symbol of the pennies. There would now be a lifetime to reflect upon their significance.
Lingruen believes the lesson to be learned from this true story is that everyone is a role model. To help instill this belief in his athletes he has established a pen pal program in which kids from the nearby elementary schools write letters to the football players at Liberty Center. “It’s good for the high school kids to see that these younger kids are constantly looking up to them,” says Lingruen. “Even after they graduate they have to realize that they are role models, whether they want to be or not, and that they have a responsibility. That’s what we tell our players when they enter our program—they have a responsibility not only to themselves and their families, but also to the coaching staff, the football team and the community.”
A Question of Priorities
Being successful in high school coaching has become a challenge in today’s world because of all the distractions. “Compared to as recently as 10 years ago, many things have changed for today’s high school students. The lifestyle, the freedom, the things they can do—everyone’s got a car now. Unfortunately, the opportunity to get into trouble is also greater—and sometimes coaching seems like a fight between good and evil. However, I believe that basically every kid is good; it’s just a matter of steering them in the right direction. And with both the parents working, we spend more time with these kids than their parents do.
“We strive to teach kids not to drink or smoke, and to do the right thing—it’s a constant battle.” Although Lingruen accepts the fact that he can’t keep every kid on the straight and narrow, more often than not he has made a difference. “My first year coaching I had one student who was in a lot of trouble. I had him come to my house quite a bit to talk to him—now he’s one of the top detectives in our county! I get a kick every time we see each other because I know how much trouble he used to be in as a youngster, and now he’s the one who is making sure other people don’t get in trouble!”
Belief in Numbers
BFS is an integral part of the recent success at Liberty Center. Coach Lingruen started using the program in 1991, and in the Spring of 1992 the school sponsored a BFS clinic which 200 kids attended. “The BFS staff did a great job, and they reinforced some of the things we had already been doing with BFS. It was a good motivator for us going into the 1993 season, and I believe it helped us win the league championships—our first league championships in almost 30 years. What’s more, we won outright—something I don’t think we’ve done in almost 60 years.”
Lingruen says that Liberty Center’s football players have shown extreme dedication to the BFS program. As a result, Lingruen believes that his players are stronger and in better condition than their opponents, and this has boosted the team’s confidence level. Lingruen says confidence and a positive mental attitude are especially important in Liberty Center’s football program, because his teams are generally much smaller than their opponents’.
Supervising the conditioning program is strength coach Tim Spiess, who also serves as the defensive coordinator. “In 1985 I picked up my first Bigger Faster Stronger Magazine and I read a feature on Delphos Jefferson High School in Ohio—it was just so inspiring. In fact, it was the most inspirational magazine I’ve ever read, and I said to myself, ‘I would love to incorporate these philosophies into my