Traditionally at the conclusion of a high school football game the teams shake hands and disperse to opposite ends of the field for the coach’s post-game speech. The Mount Vernon (Washington) High School Bulldogs follow the norm, but then they separate themselves from the pack before they head to the locker room to shed the equipment and celebrate or reflect on ways to improve.
Home or away, win or lose – still dressed in full uniform – each member of the varsity football team makes its way to the home and visitor bleachers to pick up trash. They do it not as punishment, but instead as a sense of community pride.
The new tradition for the Mt. Vernon football program was initially an effort by the players to get fans to come and see the team play. When players came to coach Jay Silver, he posed a simple question to the student-athletes.
“What are we doing beyond winning and losing that gives our community something to be proud of us so that they would want to come and watch us?”
While the question was posed to the players, Silver also pondered the potential answer. As he contemplated what direction to lead his players, he noticed trash being left behind on the Mt. Vernon campus and witnessed people just walking past.
Silver shared his observations and the conversation he and the players had with his wife, Jamie, who the third-year coach credits for being smarter than he. “Mama Silver,” as the players refer to her as, suggested the team pick up the trash.
“What? You mean after games,” Silver said was his response to her suggestion. “To be honest, I thought she was crazy for just suggesting it.”
Silver, however, challenged his players to come up with something different and make a statement. So, while it was not the players who came up with the idea, the challenge was met and the post-game ritual was born.
As the Mt. Vernon fans began to take notice of what the players were doing, they began to self-police their own area, which was a welcomed outcome and reflects how a simple gesture can change a culture.
“We really don’t have to clean up our area where (our fans sit) home or away,” Silver said. “Parents and fans started cleaning that up on their own. As a way to help, they are cleaning up on their own before we get to it.”
Silver indicated it was not only the Friday night fans and players who were impacted. He witnessed the junior varsity, freshmen and even a Mt. Vernon youth football program going to the seating area and picking up trash after their games as well.
Picking up trash is not always the easiest. Silver recalled a heartbreaking road loss when the coaches didn’t say anything to the players about going into the stands. After the post-game speech, the coaching staff instead told the team to go to the locker room and change, then get to the bus.
But, the players’ agenda was a little different.
“The players always surprise you,” Silver said. “We talked for a minute as a coaching staff and when we turned around they were up (in the stands) doing it already without anybody telling them to.”
For some players, picking up the garbage around the bleachers is about more than just cleanliness, it is about self-reflection.
“Going and taking care of the trash helped me reflect on the game, just kind of, ‘What are we here for?’” Mt. Vernon offensive lineman Josiah Nelson told The Everett (Washington) Daily Herald. “You realize there is another football game. I need to think about what I’m doing in this game and take of it in the next one.”
While many of the opposing players, fans, coaches and administrators have had puzzled looks on their faces when the Mt. Vernon players enter the stands, some have also communicated with Silver to express their thanks for performing such a positive task despite the circumstances.
Silver himself was humbled this season when Mt. Vernon played Cascade, which the Bulldogs defeated 28-0. As the normal routine began, it quickly became an even more extraordinary act when the Bruins joined in to help clean the bleachers with the very players who had just shut them out.
It was the first time an opposing team assisted with the clean up. Silver said as the players worked a Cascade supporter approached him thanking him, for what he has done.
“We were never looking to get attention for doing it,” Silver said. “It was humbling when people were telling me thank you for it. (The Cascade supporter) said, ‘you are not just changing your community,’ as he pointed to the stands, ‘you’re changing our community too.’”
The moment sparked Silver’s wife to send the Cascade principal Cathy Woods an email acknowledging the character of the Bruins football team and cheer squad while expressing her thanks for their generous act.
“While the outcome of the game was disappointing for our team, I know the real outcome is the leadership, team spirit, and character that both programs and student bodies showed,” Woods wrote in a reply email. “I only hope that the role model your team has been will continue to inspire others to join in and for our team to pay it forward.”
This season the Bulldogs finished 3-7 after posting a 7-3 record the year before. They managed a hard-fought 17-14 victory to close out the season against the Stanwood (Washington) High School Spartans.
Silver and his wife wanted to express their thanks to the players for their hard work and dedication throughout the season and give them the night off from trash duty. But, the players declined the offer and Silver said the team had a collective statement.
“That is not what we do. We pick up the trash, it doesn’t matter what type of game it is. We pick up the trash.”
The message Silver hopes his players get from this experience is more than just how to pick up trash.
“When you go out into the real world people are not there for you as much (as when in high school),” he said. “Sometimes things are difficult and you have to take one step at a time and pick up the trash and keep going. I know it is cliché, but you don’t lose unless you decide to quit. We never said it was going to be easy, but we did say that it was going to be worth it.”
Jason Haddix is coordinator of sports at the NFHS after serving internships in the Publications/Communications Department. He is a 2013 graduate of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis where he earned a bachelor’s degree in medical imaging and a certificate in journalism.