Letterman’s Grade

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Posted Mon, Jun 22, 2015

Lakewood juniors Rachel Hynes and Lauren Freeden conquer the court during a JV tennis match. (Photo by Sarah Courtney)

Lakewood juniors Rachel Hynes and Lauren Freeden conquer the court during a JV tennis match. (Photo by Sarah Courtney)

The Friday night-lights are a very real and pressing thing for high school athletes today, and it goes far beyond the football field. Of course the typical high school experience also includes classes and studying, grades and tests, and the more favored experiences like homecoming and spirit week.  That is what Lakewood High School junior Rachel Hynes has experienced her first three years of school, but there is one thing she has yet to fulfill during her high school career: an athletic varsity letter.

“I start school at 7 and usually leave for home around 5 after tennis practice,” said Hynes. “It turns into a long day when I’m doing it five times a week. I like going to practice though, it’s more fun than sitting in my classes most days.”

Based on a survey of Golden High School students, the model high school athlete spends roughly between 10 and 20 hours a week practicing or playing their sport. Participating in after school activities like a sports team are a great way for kids to learn about commitment and hard work but not everyone gets equal playing time or makes the varsity team, which diminishes the chance of earning a letter. “I actually haven’t been able to letter yet, which for a junior is little bit sad,” remarked Hynes, “I’m still on our JV tennis team because I haven’t played enough varsity matches even though I know I’m capable of playing up.”

Varsity teams in high school are made up predominantly of junior and senior students, along with the occasional highly skilled underclassmen.  Coaches of each individual sport are responsible for determining which athlete is placed on what level team.  Some might say that coaches have too much power when it comes to team determination.  As Hynes puts it, the head coach doesn’t provide her with the opportunity to earn that letter.

“Our head coach definitely favors players that only play one sport,” said Hynes. “There are sophomore and freshman girls that get to play on the varsity team, and letter, while there are juniors like me and even seniors that are stuck on JV because coach plays favorites so much.”

A varsity letter is an award in high school sports or activities in the U.S. awarded for achievement and participation. Letters are given to athletes who qualify and meet a certain set of criteria to represent the varsity level, set by each district for every specific sport.  The letter is a patch usually made up of the colors and initials representing the school the athlete attends. For the most

A Letter patch is one of the many things you can put on a letter jacket. (Photo by Dylan Palm-Trujillo)

A Letter patch is one of the many things you can put on a letter jacket. (Photo by Dylan Palm-Trujillo)

part, students are only able to get one actual letter, but they can earn it multiple times. The way this is shown is by adding metal pins, or bars to the letter.

The letter patch that is put on the jacket is mainly constructed of chenille and felt materials. The size of patch usually differs from each school but the size is usually 4 inches to 8 inches and comes in different forms and shapes as well as design. The chenille letter is traditionally placed on the students left chest of the varsity jacket. It is a widespread commonality— that kids try to achieve.

This hot commonality first took shape back in 1865 when the Harvard University baseball team added an Old English ‘H.’ to their flannel shirts. Shortly after, in 1875, the football team started

to use the ‘H’. Following its introduction, the letter ‘H’ was awarded to athletes by the team captain after an excellent showcase of athletics in an important game.  Furthermore, if an athlete did not participate in those important games they were not able to receive the letter from the captain.  The ‘H’ could have been the birth of the varsity letter!

Moreover, the letterman’s sweater and jacket was first regularly used in 1891. It is not known when the letter sweater came to high schools because the earliest known example is the year 1911 at Phoenix Union High School in Arizona. The sweater was the award letter during the 1890s and lasted until the 1930s when the jacket was born. “I think getting a chance to wear a letterman’s jacket is a sort of thing that defines that high school experience for kids,” said Tom Norfolk, Mountain Range High School golf coach/school teacher.

“I really do think that getting that opportunity to wear that increases the visibility of your school, it makes a better connection to your community,” says Tom Norfolk (Photo by Dylan Palm-Trujillo)

“I really do think that getting that opportunity to wear that increases the visibility of your school, it makes a better connection to your community,” says Tom Norfolk. (Photo by Dylan Palm-Trujillo)

Today, just like at Harvard, there are policies in place for different sports that student athletes have to meet in order to get the letter.  Each county and school district in Colorado, with the help of Colorado High School Athletic Association, has its own set of requirements for lettering pertaining to each sport.  “The process is so different from school to school and district to district that lettering is really based on individual performance, not a set state standard,” explains James Summers, athletic director of Golden High School in Jefferson County.  “It gives us an even playing field amongst our district rivals in the number of letters we hand out, because we are all following the same policy.”

Norfolk states that golf, however, follows a different set of policies than the school district, Adams 12, which doesn’t a have policy for golf with its two seasons and gender-separated teams. “With the boys in the fall,” Norfolk says, “they have a tremendous amount of time to get ready for the season before getting to play because they can play all summer long. Generally at the varsity level for boy’s golf, they have to have 5 tournament scores where they are use as our team score.”

However, in girl’s golf, Mother Nature plays a major role in the lettering process. Norfolk added, “in girls golf because of the sketchy nature of it with the weather we already have a tournament canceled this year that number goes down to 3 with again the idea being that you post a team score with that team competition.”

Same goes with the Mountain Range boys wresting team. Wrestling coach and school teacher, Todd Sandman explains that he has his own policy.

“So, for wrestling they have to score 50 team points and every time you weigh in and make weight for a competition it’s a point. Then, it’s based on wresting scoring, so if you get a pined in a match its 6 and if you get a decision in a match its 3 points. Then its gets complicated, but it’s basically based on team points. I don’t letter a kid just because they are on varsity. They get some wins and team points before they can letter.”

However, like the other districts in the state like Jefferson, Adams 12 Five Star Schools sets the bar for football, basketball, baseball and track because how widespread the sports are. “Well basically in football, there is specific handbook for Adams 12 on how many quarters you have to play for varsity games,” says Tim Harp, Horizon High School assistant football coach.

Likewise, Golden’s football coaching staff follows the set district standard.

“To letter in football you must play in 50 percent of the varsity quarters,” explains Jason Neely. “We have ten regular season games so to letter you need to play in 20 quarters during the season.”

But, with all these rules and regulations, is the lettering process a fair system?

“It’s fair to all students,” said Golden High School senior Marisa Morkovich, “Everyone has an equal opportunity to earn a letter for what they are good at- academics, theater, and athletics

Lakewood juniors Rachel Hynes and her partner Lauren Freeden meet with their coach before taking the court to play. (Photo by Sarah Courtney)

Lakewood juniors Rachel Hynes and her partner Lauren Freeden meet with their coach before taking the court to play. (Photo by Sarah Courtney)

alike.  When you start to pursue an activity you are already working toward that letter.  Everyone gets a chance if they participate and have good instructors or coaches.”

Harp thinks so. “It’s a pretty good system, its very objective. You know again the kids that it makes a difference to is the special teams or the part-time players not the starting 22 on 5A because you platoon so to them you automatically you letter.”

However, the National Collegiate Athletic Association would suggest a big deference to most athletes’ not just part-time players. According to a study by the NCAA, high school athletics are a big part of kids’ lives because not all of them go to the college level and continue to play.  Further, it states there are 1,112,303 student athletes in the game of football with only 5.8 percent making it to a college team and with only 0.08 percent of them making it to the pros.

Hynes, being a high school athlete, believes there is room for improvement. “I think the lettering process could be changed to award more athletes that have put in their time at school. Seniors should have the chance to letter even if they aren’t the best athlete on the team, but because they are still a part of that team and have been for four years,” she says. “I think participation is valuable too and coaches look past it a lot of times.”

Norfolk also believes there should be recognition for commitment, time and work ethic that these student athletes provide.

“There are a lot of sports that have become year round sports for kids. It is not like you play baseball at the high school level that don’t play during the baseball season but you’re expected to play fall ball, spring ball or  baseball team goes down to Arizona over spring break,” says Norfolk. “I know it’s a huge motivating factor for our girls who come out to our team giving them something more to strive for. Then just a score they may not be the best golfer in our league but they can still walk away with an athletic letter that helps them tied to their high school experience.”

Ultimately, if high school sports are such a big part of kids’ lives why can’t commitment, time and work ethic be part of the process?

Like Norfolk said, “there are a lot of sports that have become year round sports for kids.” So, if not all athletes make it to play college and pro sports then the high school letter should be achievable but not easy to get because like Sandman said, “I want it to be meaningful to letter, but I don’t (want) a kid who says I am (the) only 106 pounder, so I letter.”

Estimated probability of competing in athletics beyond the High School Interscholastic Level (Source: NCAA)

  • High School Student Athletes
    1. Men’s Soccer: 383,824
    2. Baseball: 473,184
    3. Football: 1,112,303
    4. Women’s Basketball: 44,809
    5. Men’s Basketball: 545,145
  • High School Senior Student Athletes
    1. Men’s Soccer: 109,664
    2. Baseball: 135,195
    3. Football: 317,801
    4. Women’s Basketball: 127,088
    5. Men’s Basketball: 155,756
  • NCAA Senior Student Athletes
    1. Men’s Soccer: 4,800
    2. Baseball: 6,626
    3. Football: 14, 418
    4. Women’s basketball: 3,418
    5. Men’s Basketball: 3,758
  • NCAA Student Athletes Drafted
    1. Men’s Soccer: 76
    2. Baseball: 600
    3. Football: 250
    4. Women’s Basketball: 32
    5. Men’s Basketball: 44
  • Percent Of High School to NCAA and Pros
    1. Men’s Soccer:
      • College: 5.6 percent
      • Pros:07 percent
    2. Baseball:
      • College: 6.3 percent
      • Pros: 0.44 percent
    3. Football:
      • College: 5.8 percent
      • Pros: 0.08 percent
    4. Women’s Basketball:
      • College: 3.5 percent
      • Pros: 0.03 percent
    5. Men’s Basketball:
      • College: 3.1 percent
      • Pros: 0.03

Sarah Courtney Co-Author This Story

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About Dylan Palm-Trujillo

Dylan Palm-Trujillo is a Freelance Writer/Photographer for the Metropolitan and Metro Post -Telegraph. He has had work published by Westword Denver and Johnstown Breeze while being a student at Metro. Moreover, he has done a PR internship as well as a reporting Internship. Further, he is a Metro State Student currently studying Convergent Journalism and expects to graduate in the fall of 2015.

View all posts by Dylan Palm-Trujillo

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