My senior year of high school our football team was ranked number-one in the state of Illinois and also ranked nationally. We expected to win the state championship and had a very good season but ended up losing in the state quarterfinals on a terrible call. I can still see that game, and that call, 25 years later and the pain of losing, the agony of falling short, the humility of seeing our dream die on a Saturday afternoon has laid dormant over the past two and-a-half decades but has never gone away.
I can only imagine the anguish I would feel if I actually got to play in the games.
Yes, I was a benchwarmer but it was my bench. My team. My joy and my pain.
It was only my second year on the team that year, 1986, as I’d spent my freshman and sophomore years trying wrestling and loafing before finally, thanks to a good dean and a nice coach, discovering weightlifting. Many hours in the weight room made me realize that my nascent muscles would give me a chance to survive at football (my favorite sport) even though I was still small, slow and inexperienced. So, in my junior year, 1985, I went out for the team, survived three-a-day practices, stayed disciplined in the weight room and our team won our conference and reached the state semi-finals before losing a heartbreaker in the rain.
And I never played. Not a single play in a varsity game.
I had a little more hope for my senior year as another year of lifting weights and learning the system transformed me from the worst player on the team into, and I write this with a lot of pride, one of the worst. As a five-eight, 160-pound linebacker-cornerback-fullback-split end without much speed or skill, I never would have been a great football player even at a small school. But I was strong. And tough. And those things mattered even at a huge school in a major suburban conference outside Chicago.
Despite being stronger and better I didn’t see much playing time my senior year, either. The coaches were nice for allowing me to even be on the team but, perhaps feeling the pressure of being considered the best team in the state, never wanted to give lesser players much of a chance even during a blowout.
It’s a quandary that coaches face. We hear so much today about children as self-entitled narcissists, who expect to win all the time and are given trophies for just showing up to games, which is sad. Playing time should be earned and awards should be given out for being better, not just for being there. That was the sporting world in which I played in 1986 and, looking back, I think it was better. But it didn’t feel too good at the time. The true reward for my months of sweat was the feeling of pride I received for being on the team, the friendships, the camaraderie, and the memories. But a few more moments of action on the field would have been nice, too. Sometimes kids should be given things they don’t deserve.
Professional athletes have been heard to say they would rather be the worst player on a championship team than the best player on a cellar-dweller. Multi-million-dollar contracts aside, that’s probably true for most people and probably also would ring true for me. But I ended up getting the worst of both worlds. We were good, but not champs, and I was a genuine “Pine Brother,” pickin’ splinters on the bench.
So why the hell am I writing about it?
I realized recently that I was approaching the 25th anniversary of that final game but admit my memory was a little off. I was convinced the date was November 9, 1986 but an Internet search told me that November 9 was a Sunday that year and I know our playoff game was a Saturday so the game had to be November 8. The past had crept up on me even more quickly than I expected.
It was a grey, overcast day and our stadium was packed with more than 3,000 fans and we jumped out to a lead and I, watching from sidelines, figured we’d win and move on. And then…God…things went wrong. We ended up falling behind on a bad call in the final seconds and we had a chance for a final kickoff return and I remember thinking I should have inserted myself into the game for that play, I just should have done it and…then there was a fight. A big fight, mayhem all over the field with players, fans and coaches and…it was over.
Our coach cried that day. Before the game.
Afterwards in the locker room we all cried.
And I remember I walked home alone. In the rain.
I never played organized football again. Some would say I never played organized football at all.
Happily, and honestly, I don’t think very much about how my life would have been altered if we’d won that game and went on to win the state championship. Certainly it would have been different but I don’t know if it would have been better. Maybe the best thing about it would have been not greater bragging rights but, simply, more memories. In the end they are all that matter.
My senior year of high school, my teammates, classmates and coaches all deserve more than this. The coach who let me be on the team, who let me lift weights, died many years ago and at least one of our assistant coaches, the one who specifically put me in a varsity game for the first time, is also gone. They all deserve greater tribute and more vivid remembrance than I’m giving them here on this page. But it’s just so damn hard to dig deep, to recall the pain, to endure it all over again.
And I didn’t even get to play.
Teddy Roosevelt famously and inspiringly said, “…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Words to live by, run by, love by and keep close. Twenty-five years later, though, I still don’t know if I was in the arena. I was there. I had a helmet. I could taste the terrible aftermath. But I don’t know if I was ever really in the fight.
The lesson is supposed to be that I have had a richer life because at least I was there. I tried. I wasn’t sitting at home. The lesson is supposed to be what Teddy Roosevelt said which, strangely, is sort of a tribute to, or maybe even an inspiration for, the ego-protection at every turn that so many youth sports leagues live by in 2011. You have to get in the game to have a chance to win. That’s supposed to be the lesson, right? You have to be there.
But when I stare deep into my own heart and consider the years that have gone by and grasp for the meaning and lessons of life and how they were born out of losing a high school football game, my last game, the only thing that truly still dwells in me is the pain. I just wish we had won.