EDMOND — Edmond Memorial's Justin Merideth puts every drop of emotion his body can muster into coaching football. And when he loses, it hurts.
It hurts on Friday night after the game, and it hurts again on Saturday, when he watches the game tape. Then it hurts some more on Sunday, when he tries to figure out how to fix the errors that caused Friday's loss.
By Monday morning, he's emotionally spent. Then he walks in his classroom and sees a dozen smiling faces, and football is forgotten. The pain of defeat fades fast when the school day starts.
Merideth's students call him “Coach,” but none of them are concerned with alignment in the 4-3 defense. Friday night's final score hardly moves their emotional needle.
Merideth is a special education teacher.
“You might be having a bad day, but these kids — whatever the situation is — they're living their daily lives with different things, and you find it hard to be upset about losing a football game,” Merideth said.
“These kids are dealing with situations that are way more difficult than losing a football game, and they do it with a great mindset and a great attitude. It gives you some perspective, some humility. It's very rewarding.”
At a time when many Class 6A head football coaches are moving into administrative roles and out of the classroom, Merideth holds one of the most challenging, time-consuming jobs in any school building.
But he's quick to point out that the challenge of his job does not lie within the classroom. Working with the children is the reason he pursued a special education degree in the first place.
The hard work arrives with the mind-numbing hours of paperwork that must be completed, regulations that must be stringently followed, or just making sure that parents are properly informed about their child's educational status.
“A lot of people don't realize how time-consuming that job is and how much paperwork is involved,” said Melinda Moore, an English teacher who co-teaches with Merideth two periods each day as part of a mainstreaming process to include the special education students in classrooms with the rest of the school's students.
The workload is secondary to the classroom, in Merideth's eyes.
“Interacting with the kids is the part I love,” he said. “It takes away the grind. You're not just going to do a job. I enjoy it.”
Merideth, one of 17 special education teachers at Edmond Memorial, still finds time to coach his football team as well, orchestrating a turnaround from an 0-5 start to standing on the brink of a potential playoff berth entering Friday night's game against Putnam City West.
Merideth isn't the only football coach who teaches special education. But it's a small group. And it's a unique dynamic to consider the stereotypical football coach, strong and loud and gruff, weighed against the tender and patient person needed for special education.
Merideth bridges the gap.
“The thing Justin has is strong passion,” Edmond Schools athletic director Mike Nunley said. “When you're around him, it's easy to see that he's all about the kids. He loves the teaching part.
“Who he is in the classroom doesn't have to be who he is on the football field, and I think that helps him balance his day.”
The key for Merideth is his desire to teach, whether on the field or in the classroom.
“A kid is having trouble with something you might feel is fairly simple, and you say, ‘OK, I've got to help this kid get to this point,'” Merideth said. “It might seem like a simple step. But you just want to help those kids take that next step in their lives. Maybe it's reading or writing, something that a lot of us take for granted. But for them, that's pretty important.
“That's the moment that you've forgotten about football or all the paperwork, and you focus on that kid, because that's something that's important for life. And those moments happen daily.”
Merideth gives credit to Breck Hall — a man he hasn't seen in more than 15 years — for helping him find his passion to teach special education.
Hall was a senior on the football team at Northeastern State when Merideth was a freshman. Merideth knew he wanted to coach, but had no idea what teaching field to pursue, until Hall recommended special education.
“I observed a classroom for a couple days and thought it was pretty neat,” he said. “The more I was around it, the more I enjoyed it. I got more satisfaction out of it than being in other classrooms.”
Merideth and Moore began co-teaching together five years ago.
“To be honest, I was apprehensive at first,” Moore said. “My husband used to be a coach, so I know how time-consuming that is, and I wondered, is he going to have time for everything this job involves?
“But he's very good with kids, and he just jumps right in. I think the kids realize how much he cares about them. They see him in a whole different light than the football players do.”
At the same time, Merideth has qualities that benefit him in both areas.
“He has a good balance,” Edmond Memorial principal Debbie Bendick said. “He's really sensitive and perceptive. In football, you have to read a lot of silent dialogue. You have to look and interpret. And the same is true with our special-needs kids. You have to be able to watch them and figure out their issues and how to serve them better.”
There are days when Merideth thinks it would be nice to be out of the classroom, like so many coaches are now, affording him the opportunity to focus more on football and preparing his team.
But right now, the importance he finds in the classroom is too great to give up.
“It can be busy and it can be hectic during football season,” he said. “It was difficult at first, but I've grown to love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. Each day, you get something out of it.
“It keeps me centered, keeps me focused on what's really important in life.”
Putnam City West (1-8) at Edmond Memorial (3-6)
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Wantland Stadium, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond
Scouting report: Edmond Memorial must win to have a shot at a playoff berth out of District 6A-4. The Bulldogs started the season 0-5, but they are 3-1 since. Putnam City West will attempt to end on a high note with its second victory in coach Rocky Martin's first season. The Pats have lost eight straight since a season-opening victory over Western Heights.