Susquehanna Township Head Coach Helps Players See Beyond Friday Nights
In recent years, Susquehanna Township School District has been the recipient of frequent publicity, and little of it has been positive. An exception is the high school’s football team.
Last fall, the Indians were the Mid-Penn Conference’s Keystone Division champions. This season, they continue the annual quest for gridiron prominence.
Amidst the passion and pageantry of Susquehanna Township football is Head Coach Joe Headen. In his 14th year at the helm, the youthful 43-year-old Harrisburg native and Bishop McDevitt alum directs a program established on four principles – responsibility, education, attitude and leadership.
“We use the acronym R.E.A.L. to identify those principles,” says Headen. “It’s put on correspondence, scouting reports, classroom documents and so on. Of course, education is the most important. That’s why you’re here, we tell the players.”
The effective application of those principles has rendered athletic ineligibility an uncommon problem for Headen and his staff. But, it was not always the case.
“In my first year here as an assistant to Four Chapman, we had 10 of 40 players ineligible at the start of the season,” he remembers. “That led to the establishment of mandatory Tuesday and Thursday study halls after practice. It has evolved into a district-wide program.”
James “Jimmy” Jones, who earned quarterback fame at John Harris High School and the University of Southern California in the 1960s, is the program administrator.
“Players who are not having classroom problems are still required to attend,” says Headen, “and use the time to prepare for the SATs or other academic obligations. We stress to our players that, if you’re ineligible because of academic or discipline problems, you’re letting down your teammates.”
All of this emphasis on academic achievement and good attitude has had an impact. Susquehanna gridders are often sought by college recruiters.
“For the 2015-16 school year, we had 15 former players participating in collegiate football,” says Headen. “In the class of 2017, three were offered financial packages from Ivy League schools, and four others were contacted by Ivy schools. That’s good in anybody’s book,” he declares. The Ivies do not offer athletic scholarships.
Aaron Seigle’s experience is illustrative. A standout on the 2015 team, he is now enrolled at Villanova University.
“He’s a mechanical-engineering student who plays football,” says Headen, noting the order. “On his initial visit, he first met the dean of the engineering school, then two engineering students who play football. Later, he met the head coach.”
Headen ended last season with 88 career wins. But in his first year as mentor, the team was 2-8 and dressed only 38 players, including freshmen.
“In the beginning, we had to instill a cultural change,” he says. “The kids had to be convinced to trust the process. Eventually we introduced the mantra ‘pound the rock.’ Every day, whether in class, at practice or in the weight room, keep working hard, keep improving. It doesn’t always happen quickly, but if you stay the course, you’ll succeed. The same goes for life experiences, as well.”
Headen has degrees from Bloomsburg University and Shippensburg University, the latter a master’s in education administration. He can see a future as a school administrator or coaching at the collegiate level. For now, his heart is at Susquehanna.
“I love coaching football,” he says. “I want the kids to enjoy the game and build relationships, whether they play only one down or play every down of the season.”
A resident of Susquehanna Township, Headen is married to his high-school sweetheart and has a teenaged son and two daughters. When not teaching American history at the high school and coaching, he favors time with family and languid days on the beach at Ocean City, Md.