November 12th, 2010
08:39 AM ET

Human Factor: 'What ifs' and other painful lessons

In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to a survivor who has overcome tremendous odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Be inspired by their successes, as we have been.

There are moments when we think we are doing the right thing. Times when we are helping others and we truly believe it’s for the best. And there are those times that we’ve hurt more than we’ve helped.

I met Amos five years ago. It was a typical meeting in the parking lot of one of the many apartment complexes in Clarkston, Georgia. He was new to the country, a 14-year-old from Liberia. He loved soccer, so my team, the Fugees, was a natural fit for him. For the most part, he was like the rest of the kids that I had. He was a refugee boy from Liberia, whose family was trying to figure out the United States. He had never had any type of formal schooling.

I didn’t think much of that day when I met him. There had been some hype amongst the team about his playing ability, but I had learned very early on that kids like to exaggerate and, besides, how good could he really be?

At his first practice I learned very quickly that the kids weren’t exaggerating; he was the most gifted athlete I had ever coached. It was magical to watch his transformation on the field. He was confident and calm, he could play with both feet, and he was completely fearless. He was selfless and a great team player and didn’t have the ego that should have gone with this kind of talent. In the year and a half that I coached him, the team lost only one game.

I am not sure of the precise moment when things started going wrong. There probably wasn’t just one, but a series of moments when my standards for Amos were not the same as they were for the rest of the team. If he showed up late to practice, it was OK, as long as he showed up. If he wanted fast food after practice, I would stop and buy it. If he needed a ride to practice, I would pick him up. I loved winning and having coaches compliment his playing ability, and I was proud to be his coach. None of my other kids were getting that kind of treatment.

Maybe part of it was because he was an incredible athlete, or because he was an orphan who had lost both his parents in the brutal civil war in Liberia. One of his brothers was a former child soldier; the other one was taking care of him. Gradually I started to treat him more and more like a victim, because of his traumatic experience and his tragic home situation. He played the victim and I treated him like one.

And I made excuses for him. For his lateness, and his entitlement. For his home situation and for the fact that he couldn’t read. I don’t know the exact moment that I realized that this was wrong, that I wasn’t helping because I wasn’t giving this boy anything that would allow him to succeed in life.

Maybe it was when he started expecting to be treated differently, or the 50th time I went to McDonalds, or when I arranged for a private tutor to work with him on his reading and he never showed up. Or when I had to drag him out of bed to make it to an Olympic Development Program tryout. Or the catalytic moment when Joshua, one of my 16-year-old players, made a mistake; he tried hard to fix it but then fell apart because he had disappointed me and regretfully said, “I’m sorry I’m not Amos.”

“No you are not.” To them, no one could live up to Amos in my eyes because he could do no wrong.

I eventually kicked Amos off the team. I gave him chance after chance to follow the rules and standards that I had set for the other kids, but it was too late; I had broken them too many times already. He dropped out of high school and is currently working at a meat processing plant and is an 18-year-old father of two children from two different women.

Some days I play the “What if?” game, wondering if he would have been one of the nine Fugees that have gone on to college, but I realize that I can’t go down that road. I am a better coach because of Amos. He taught me to treat all my players equally regardless of their athletic ability, to not make excuses for anyone regardless of the situation, and that we all make mistakes. I tell my players that we all learn from our mistakes. And my experience with Amos was a rude awakening for me. I have learned to treat all my players equally, both on and off the field. Not making excuses for them. Empowering, not enabling.

To Amos:

Thank you for all you taught me. I am sorry I didn’t learn it before I met you.


*Amos' name has been changed to protect his identity.

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. SistahChef

    Dear Coach,

    I am glad that you were able to learn from your experience and move on. I am in a similar situation and I have realized also, that you simply cannot help everyone.

    Good luck to you and thanks for sharing!

    November 12, 2010 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Soledad's Sister

    CNN keeps deleting my posts because they are in a dark font.......HOw dare you CNN!!!!

    November 12, 2010 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • IMHO

      Was the font merely bolded or was it possibly one not compatible with the fonts CNN's website recoginzes? After all, you can't expect them to be able to compensate for every inept poster.

      November 13, 2010 at 14:41 | Report abuse |
  3. Traumatized Poster

    There I was just reading an Article on CNN's webpage and I thought I would post my opinion but it was deleted...Am I not equal to other readers and posters? am I inferior?Wow.... is my opinion not as good as others? Depression sank in ...Thanks CNN!!!

    November 12, 2010 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • IMHO

      And here you are...with egg on your face.

      November 13, 2010 at 14:42 | Report abuse |
  4. Jorge

    Coaches? We don't need no stinkin' coaches! When I was a teenager I just went to the local YMCA and browsed around, turns out I had a knack for powerlifting, so the adult regulars who went there to train mentored me, otherwise I would have just been the stocky kid with glasses at school. After I buffed up that year the football coach peskered me to join the team, I just blew him off...

    November 12, 2010 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. we feel your pain...

    Now that you've made your case on just how much you've learned from AMOS. Did occur to your own sobbing-ass self that your learning experience did damage? Perhaps you should dwell a bit more on what Amos is up to today and how you are working with him or through others to get him back on the rails. you're the one with frikin EGO problem. fix it and him.
    idiots like you get remembered for people's whole lives.

    November 12, 2010 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Mike

    Wait, wait, wait. So you spoiled a kid, he got spoiled, and you kicked him off the team. Why? For not going to OLYMPIC tryouts? Holy cr@p. I hope you get fired J3rk.

    November 12, 2010 at 15:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. ElizardBETH Crowinn Senior Big DOG Medical Gossip Spreader

    **************************************breaking news************************
    ******************************************************************11 Year old allowed in Spinning class yesterday............

    *****************************************************STAY TUNED********************************

    November 12, 2010 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. WesternODP

    What you're doing is not easy, and each young player has their own story to deal with so I wish you the best in moving forward in your efforts to impart the influence that these kids need to succeed in a new and unfamiliar environment. There will always be a young man or woman that you can't seem to be able to help no matter how hard you try, and all you can do is hope that you can learn and make better choices in the future. To the negative posters, there's a lot more to this story than has been presented here, and those of you who think you know everything are so far off base it incredible. This is someone who is making the effort and doing more to help a large group of kids in need than I can imagine any of you are, and the least you can do is recognize the effort and consider what you might do to contribute in your own community.

    November 12, 2010 at 22:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. charles s


    It is hard to be human. That is the problem with humans, sometimes they fail. The best that you can hope for is that you learn something from your failure and try not to repeat it. It sound like you learned that lesson well. Reach out to Amos and see if he learned from his failures. He is only 18, so maybe he can be helped. I am always surprised how people can do things that hurt themselves. They do it over and over again. I guess its just part of being human

    November 13, 2010 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. John Devaney

    Coach, you are only "human" and a Coach not his Father, as so many kids want these days. Perhaps many of us would have done these same things to "win". We all want to win! My parents did their best for me and all my coaches but it was"I" who made the decisions on "me". It's kind of like the pretty girl vs. the not so pretty girl with the attention and falling over oursleves. We want to be around winners and "beautiful People" . Don't be so hard on yourself Coach,you humbled yourself here and that is more than 80% of us would do! You have relfected and are a better person despite the drama and this kid.
    Never hang you head and as these kids grow they will see how easy it is to do what you did! God Bless you Coach!

    November 13, 2010 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Elle

    I think flagellating yourself over this won't help. coach-you made a mistake. we all do. if you think you need forgiving, you won't get it from me, because that would also imply deliberate sin, and that would also imply "amos" sinned also. so coach, if you want to really help that kid, stop using the word "victim" altogether. amos was a victim, but today is not the past, and tomorrow is but where today's steps will lead us, no matter how confident or hesitant they may be.

    November 13, 2010 at 19:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. John Q. Public

    What on earth is this nonsense? Did I see "liberian refugee" and "entitled" in the same sentence? The whole narrative voice in this article reeks privilege, and the author makes himself out to be way too much of a central figure in this young person's life. On top of that the questionable decision to boot this kid off the team for not making olympic practices? I agree there are many many what ifs to this story, mostly one's that the author probably didn't consider. People with as skewed world-views and internal narratives as the author should probably be kept from influencing the lives of vulnerable refugee kids. Seriously.

    November 14, 2010 at 01:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. mmi16

    Ball coaches are ball coaches....not parents to the players.

    November 14, 2010 at 02:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. The Game of Impermanence

    It's not that I don't have compassion for the players in this conundrum, however it might help everyone to remember this: ALL life forms on this 3rd rock from the Sun (as far as can been determined), has gone/are going EXTINCT.

    When will the lights go out, who knows, but every second clocked is one second closer to oblivion. Run a search online for currently known asteroid and comet paths and see how many games of "Chicken" are played with the Big Blue Marble. Most path diagrams resemble the interior of a baseball just prior to unraveling. (I'm not even going to bother with meteors because of their numbers and "wild card" origins status.) Toss in human generated impact on the global environment – you may chose any 2 of your favorites (petrochemicals, anything w/ greenhouse in its title/description, loss of fresh water sources, wars, crop disasters, forced uprooting & movement of indigenous peoples, etc.). Now roll those dice and see if they don't come up snake eyes.

    Boogey said it best: "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Here's looking at you kid."

    May you face the future with a smile and remember to BREATHE!

    November 14, 2010 at 04:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Bob

    This kid was shaped by his experiences. What he was not taught is that, while his past negative experiences can not be changed, he can start accumulating positive experiences to take his life in a more positive direction. The problem with this article is that it denies that past experiences determine present behavior – the kid really was a victim. Could this coach have prevented what eventually happened to this kid? Maybe, maybe not. The seeds of the problems were planted before the coach ever met him. Coaches should not deny the past problems by denigrating the victim status – but they also should not continually focus on the past problems. There is a real problem with wallowing in your past negative experiences. It's best to forgive yourself and everyone else of all errors in judgment and then move on. You set a direction to move in and then do what it takes to keep going in that direction. Your focus should be on the future, not the past.

    Still, we need to realize that this kid was a victim and the societal problems that gave rise to his problems should be addressed. Continually focusing on individuals as the cause of all problems does not do anyone any good. We are all a product of our environment. Make the environment better and our lives will get better.

    November 14, 2010 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Chupy

    I went to a Catholic high school. The nuns cut me no slack whatsoever – demanded excellence and took no excuses. Best thing that ever happened to me. I'm 60 years old and look back on a very successful career. All teachers should be like those excellent nuns!

    November 14, 2010 at 18:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. NotNews

    How is this even a health article? Basically the writer showed someone special treatment and ended up regretting it.
    Special treatment shouldn't have even been given in the first place. Basically you put someone on a pedestal and they shat on you from up there. What I've learned is no one is better than anyone and treat people accordingly. A unstable human being is an unstable human being regardless of how talented/spoonfed/gifted they are.

    November 14, 2010 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. HPN

    It always kills me when high school coaches start talking about how if the kid could have just gone to college and maybe then in to pro sports. Last time I heard you had to be able to read to go to college. College is for learning knowledge, not showing off athletic skills.

    November 15, 2010 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.