Tears of Joy. Relief. Gratitude. They felt good. Very, very good. They lasted a good long while. So long in fact there are a few trying to slip out right now, because I can’t even think about this topic without getting emotional.
Apparently some people are surprised to hear that I would cry. What momentous occasion caused my flood? Did I have a new child? Win the lottery? Or a new piece of business?
Nope. We won a high school football game.
Yup, that’s it. A high school football game put me into a discombobulated state. Feel free to change the channel if you’ve seen this episode of the Mh3 life before. Clearly this blog is suffering from a severe case of deja voodoo. But for those loyal viewers I can promise a new twist to an old theme.
Since 1998 I have presided as the Head Coach over these same Panthers and have endured numerous heartbreak defeats at the hands of Northern. I have felt cursed. The first time we played them in my era, we lost on a last minute, 65-yard touchdown. In 2005 I lost a painful tilt in the SkyDome, on a last minute INT caused by a greedy play call on my part. You can imagine my dismay when my best team ever fell the same way, in 2008, in the playoffs.
You have to understand Northern is a football power. They have a nice stadium with a new turf field. Savvy coaches and plenty of them. Plus, boatloads of players for them to instruct.
Our schools are so close geographically that many of the players know each other well. Whether it be from having attended the same middle school or summer camp in the past or playing summer ball together. The rivalry is intense. The Northern game is always red circled on our schedule calendar. I doubt it is the same for them, but isn’t that part of what makes a rivalry tick? When you care more about playing someone than they do you?
Heading into this season I was excited about our talent but worried about depth. However, when we suited up thirty bodies for our first scrimmage I was pretty happy. Sadly, thirty is a LOT of players for us. But by the time the Northern game rolled around – our first regular season contest – I was only suiting up twenty-three due to injuries and transfer issues. When we got off the bus a photographer asked me if we had another vehicle coming with the defensive players on it!
Imagine how I felt as I looked over to the red sideline and there were more than twice as many helmets ready to take us on. Here we go again.
Actually, that wasn’t how I felt.
This time I had a hypnotic calm that only confidence can manifest. This time I possessed an unerring certainty about our game plan. This time I had faith in the dogged preparation my teenage charges had endured.
Yet I had had these feelings before. Only once mind you, in sixteen years, because usually I felt like a colossal underdog. So I could not be certain this time would be different.
Ironically, this game opened much like the heartbreak of 2008 with us scoring the first touchdown. Eerily, we scored on a defensive play. (Again, like 2008). Bizarrely, we would score two defensive TDs. (Just like 2008). Laying witness to all this, just next to our bench, was our star QB from 2008. He now plays for U of T.
A seesaw battle erupted on the field and in my mind. But despite the highs and lows I never saw us losing. Not even with the opponent securing a first down inside our 20 with just two minutes remaining.
Two short runs and a snuffed out screen handed us back the ball. A series of plays that included, kneel downs, intentional (on my part) delay of game penalties, a conceded safety, an on-side kick that resulted in a rugby-like return, and one last fleeting, gasping, struggling for oxygen desperation pass that triumphantly crashed landed in our favour.
We had won.
We beat our rivals.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t even stand straight up.
Really you skeptics ask? Really?
Why you crying old man?
If you ask that question you’ve never played sports. If you ask that question you have never auditioned for a stage role. If you ask that question you have never made a new business pitch. If you ask that question you’ve never sought a coveted promotion at work.
In this era of Generation Y, which I believe stands for everyone gets a trophY, we have been taught that winning isn’t everything. We now teach everyone is a winner.
Well, I come from the Lombardi generation where Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing. But understand what those words mean. They mean strive to achieve. They mean give your all. They mean play hard, but within the rules. They mean if you don’t win, take pride in giving your all, but don’t take a second place trophy.
Was this blubber session last Friday all about winning? No. It was about validation. It was validation for my kids that they could play with the best. It was validation for my volunteer coaches that their efforts were bringing results. It was validation for me.
This wasn’t a win over a group of teenagers. It was a ghost-slayer for me. Every year I had felt like I had let my team down. Felt like I wasn’t building a strong enough program. Felt like I wasn’t as good a coach as the other sideline. Felt like it was my fault my players were denied local bragging rights.
You’ve been there. You’ve had that rival, that monkey on your back, that superstitious jinx, that perceived slight from your opponent, that thunder of disbelief in your mind, that gnawing doubt you could succeed, that fear you may never leave the field as the victor.
You know the flood of emotions when that winner was scored. The winning hit sending the ball over the home run wall. The winning shot gliding the puck across the red line. The winning pass sailing the ball across the goal line.
You know the relief as the clock strikes zero. The reaction of your teammates. The cheering fans almost inaudible through the orchestra of your own screams. You remember throwing yourself unashamedly into the arms of another, the intimacy of the embrace that would be ridiculously awkward in any other setting. You remember how going to bed that night felt like you had a visitors pass to heaven.
That is why I cried. I am not sure my words are strong enough to convince you of the moment. Unless, like me, you’ve had a time of self-doubt. Unless, like me, you’ve had a curse you couldn’t shake. Unless, like me, you have that one triumphant day in your sports career when you can say, a la Joe Namath, “We Dd It.”
Yes, I know it was a high school football game. But that’s my point.