By Kristin Schultz
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has announced that he wants to play football until he is 45 years old, which would make him one of the oldest active professional players in history.
“The best thing about him is that he makes those around him better because you want to play up to his level,” said Rosendale Elementary School Principal Joe DiCaprio. “He leads by example. That’s what I was trying to do with this project.”
The Growth to Gridiron project began last fall after the elementary school staff read “A Mindset for Learning” by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz, which explores teaching children not just to learn, but to have a mindset that aids not just in learning, but in life.
Growth mindset is the belief that basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work; success is not predetermined by documented skills or intelligence.
In exploring how to model this concept for students, DiCaprio reached for a passion — football. He comes from a football family — his father played for the University of Maryland and DiCaprio himself suited up as a defensive player at Schenectady High School. He decided to train and try out for the semi-professional Glens Falls Greenjackets team.
At age 40, this would be no small challenge, but that was the point.
“I’m not trying to relive my glory days,” he said. “This is about modeling a concept that’s good for the kids.”
To bring the students and families along on his journey, DiCaprio started a blog where he documented, week by week, his struggles, his progress and his feelings. His first hurdle was simply getting started.
“My initial struggle was getting myself motivated,” he said. “I had a nice routine going.”
A routine like many husbands and dads: get up, get the kids on the bus, go to work, get the kids to and from their after-school activities, eat dinner, clean up, then sit on the couch, relax or catch up on work.
“I like being home at night,” he said. “It’s comfortable. That’s my spot on the couch. I had to force myself to work out.”
So after the kids were in bed, DiCaprio headed up to Niskayuna High School and ran the track and worked out in the weight room.
Progress was slow. “I was woefully out of shape,” he said. But the encouragement of students, staff, community members and his own family kept him going.
Feeling out of sorts
The night of the first preseason practice arrived and, like the new kid walking into school, he entered the Chase Sports Complex uncertain, nervous and alone.
“I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “There were 40 guys, all bigger than me, all younger than me. I was unsure if I’d prepared enough or even prepared the right way. I’ll never forget that feeling.”
The practice was grueling. Among mostly 20- and early 30-somethings, DiCaprio drilled for an hour: sled drills, sprints, box drills, pro-agility.
“There was a lot of huffing and puffing,” he admitted. “I wasn’t looking to be the best. I was looking to stay standing up, breathing and conscious.”
Still standing, he spent the next hour working out with and getting to know fellow defensive backs. After practice, he was exhausted but grateful he had put in the hard work.
He continued to work out and go to practice but there were setbacks. One Thursday night, having failed to warm up properly, DiCaprio tore his calf muscle.
“It felt like someone threw a lacrosse ball at my leg,” he said. “My wife had ice and a stack of pillows ready when I got home.”
By Monday, his calf was black and blue. The school nurse and an athletic trainer told him to see a doctor, who confirmed the tear and told him to rest.
Getting the news
At the first official tryout on Feb. 25, he couldn’t participate due to his injury. But he kept attending practices, doing what he could.
The final tryout came on March 25. After a morning run that left his still-injured leg throbbing, he headed back to Glens Falls. Instead of a physical tryout, the format was surprisingly an interview.
“Coach [Raymond] Swamm was fantastic,” said DiCaprio. “He said, ‘You’ve been coming to practices since January. That’s when the tryouts started.’ ”
He made the team.
While he may have officially achieved his goal, making the team was a small measure of success. DiCaprio’s real wins came off the field.
He got to know high school Principal John Rickert during his evening workouts. DiCaprio’s children ran the track and walked the neighborhood with him.
“My family, my wife have been nothing but supportive,” he said.
Even strangers would stop him and ask how training was going and offer encouragement or buy him a cup of coffee.
“One grandmother told me she used to knit but had not kept it up over the years,” he said. “She told me that because of this project, she picked it up again.”
He was reminded of the team camaraderie that exists among brothers in pads.
He was moved to tears at a surprise pep rally at which a video showed students thanking “Mr. D” for inspiring them to work hard at difficult things — reading, division, social interactions.
Still nursing his bum leg, DiCaprio has another doctor appointment this month where he will learn how his leg is healing and how that will impact whether or not he can take the field.
The Greenjackets play on Saturdays from July 8 deep into September.
“I’m 40,” he said. “I want to be able to live my life without permanent damage.”
Whatever his gridiron future may be, DiCaprio will continue to teach and model growth mindset, emphasizing progress and love of learning over pressure and other people’s measures of achievement.
Next year he may pursue learning a musical instrument, painting or writing poetry.
“I want this concept of growth mindset to be a constant,” he said. “Hard work equals success, not necessarily achievement. Trust the process, engage in the process to the best of your ability.
“If you meet your goal, it’s successful. But if you don’t, identify what you got good at along the way. That’s the power of teaching and learning, hopefully leading to traits that are good in school and in adult life.”