I have fond memories of my seventh-grade year at Elk Garden Elementary.
We were a small school located outside the metropolitan area of Lebanon, Va. (population 3,100), but we were also a proud, close-knit school and community – proud of our teachers, kids and the education we received there.
That year, I just happened to be the quarterback of the Elk Garden Goldies. My dad, coincidentally, was also my coach.
During my first football game, I scored several TDs on way to a blowout victory.
It felt awesome to be a “winner.” However, the rest of the season was not quite as glamorous.
During the very last game on the last play, with the scored tied, I was tackled for a safety with no time remaining on the clock. Yes – I still remember that moment like it was yesterday.
Dad said to me right before that last play, “Steven, whatever you do don’t get sacked in the end zone.” Dad had to be disappointed in me – he had to be, right?
But after the game he just hugged me and told me he loved me; he never spoke another word of it. That was Dad’s quiet way of telling me that this won’t be the last time you stumble and fall – and in the grand scheme of things, losing a seventh-grade football game was inconsequen- tial.
That was nearly the end of my football career. I suited up again in eighth grade, but my heart wasn’t into it and I found out that I wasn’t as athletic as I thought. I never really returned to organized sports after that.
Fast forward three decades and I find myself with two sons – both gifted athletes who enjoyed playing foot- ball.
They were naturals. When they put their minds to it, they could make the most difficult football moves look easy. At the age of 12, they could easily beat me in a dead sprint – it wasn’t even close.
By the time they reached 14 or 15, I rarely wanted to tangle with them as they always seemed to hurt me.
I had to learn verbal judo and issue threats of being grounded just to get myself out of wrestling matches which inevitably left me pinned, unceremoniously, to the living room floor.
I still have strong, per- sistent memories of the boys playing organized football – both boys started playing when they were very young.
Our home was continu- ously filled with the smells and sights of two boys engrossed in their sports – and when I say smells, there is nothing like the smell of teenage football practice gear.
And while I didn’t have the athletic ability my two sons did, I could read. My poor sons were exposed to a rigorous weight training program throughout high school. I was always astounded how quickly they adapted to every new routine. Looking back, I may have been living out my own dreams through their exploits.
Both enjoyed terrific individual successes as foot- ballers but had diametrically opposed successes with their teams.
The oldest played for a team that was inconsistent. I always felt great compassion for him and his teammates (I mean, we knew every single kid that played) when they walked off the field after another heartbreaking loss covered in sweat, dirt and bruises, with their heads low, and with sadness in their eyes.
But what struck me is that most of them kept giv- ing it their all, day after day, week after week, just to play that terribly hard sport. I admired that about them – their commitment to each other even in the face of defeat.
The youngest played for a different high school and had tremendous team suc- cess – even winning a state championship once and being in the hunt for several others.
But it was just as heartbreaking when he, and his team, walked off the field as seniors, the clear favorites to win it all, but losing a close one in the playoffs.
Sports can teach a player many valuable lessons about life – commitment, work ethic, teamwork, brotherhood (or sisterhood), sacrifice, grit, and even empathy.
But sports also remind us that we won’t always be winners on the field of life – that sometimes you get tackled for a safety with no time remaining on the clock.
Sports’ greatest lesson is to move forward even when it is difficult, even in the face of defeat.
The lesson is instilled in the Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
And sometimes we just might need someone to help us up when we fall – like my Dad did so many decades ago.
See you at Penn Highlands.
Steve Nunez is president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. He writes a monthly column in The Tribune-Democrat and at www.TribDem.com.
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