LINCOLN SQUARE — Andy Ekern has played football at the highest professional level for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, but said it's his youth baseball and football coaches who left the biggest impression.
"They made you love the sport," said Ekern, who retired from the NFL in 1985.
"The lessons I learned when I was 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, I still think about them every day."
That's the kind of coach Ekern, 51, and a father of three, wants to be for his Welles Park players, where he's been guiding squads since 2007.
His nomination for the Positive Coaching Alliance Double-Goal Award — which honors individuals who use sports to teach life lessons and develop character in youth — suggests he's succeeding.
Ekern is one of 50 finalists for the award, including five others from Chicago. Twenty winners will be named March 19.
"Only something like 1 percent of 1 percent [of athletes] will go on to play professionally. While we have these kids...let's teach them life lessons like discipline and dealing with adversity," said Jason Sacks, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Positive Coaching Alliance.
"Fifty years from now, these kids might not remember their team's record or their jersey number, but they'll remember their coach."
Ekern's practice of assigning his players homework is the trait that stood out for Sacks.
"Research shows that when kids are playing sports, they're more attentive to learning. They're ready to learn when they're playing sports," said Sacks.
It's a trick Ekern picked up from his college coaches at the University of Missouri, which, like any good native of the state, he pronounces Missour-ah.
Though his assignments at Mizzou typically involved studying plays and blocking schemes, the former offensive tackle and guard adapted the concept for his Welles Park youngsters.
"Say, for instance, there's Coach [John] Wooden's Pyramid of Success. I'll say, 'Pick one and on Friday, write me a paragraph about that building block and how you can apply it to football, to school, to your family."
Ekern emphasizes sportsmanship and respect with his charges.
"Winning by 50 points isn't being a good sport," he said.
By the same token, he also expects his players to say "please" and "thank you."
"Even my kids say, 'Dad, come on, it's not 1950.'"
Ekern, who works as a financial trader, got into coaching when his kids began playing sports. This past fall, he proudly led his youngest son's 11-year-old Welles Park Cowboys team to a winless record.
Playing in an elite league against traveling teams from around the country, the Cowboys lost every game, many by less than a touchdown.
"I'm very, very competitive, but I've also learned that winning on the scoreboard doesn't equate to winning off the field," said Ekern.
"If you asked our kids, they thought they won every game."