Bob Richards, the former pole-vault champion, shares a moving story about a skinny young boy who loved football with all his heart. Practice after practice, he eagerly gave everything he had. But being half the size of the other boys, he got absolutely nowhere. At all the games, this hopeful young man sat on the bench and hardly ever played. This teenager lived alone with his father and the two of them had a very special relationship. Even though his son was always on the bench, the father was always there to cheer for him.
When he entered high school, he was still the smallest boy in his class. His father continued to encourage him, but also made it clear that he did not have to play football if he didn’t want to. But the boy loved football and wanted to continue. He hoped that maybe by the time he was a senior he might get to play. All through high school he never missed a practice or a game, but remained a bench-warmer all four years.
His father was always in the stands and always had words of encouragement for him. When the young man went to college, he decided to try out for the team as a “walk-on.” The coach admitted that he kept him on the roster because he always put his heart and soul into every practice, and provided the team with spirit and hustle. During his four years at college, he never missed a practice, but did not get to play in a game. His father had season tickets and never missed a game.
It was the end of his senior football season and as he trotted onto the practice field, his coach handed him a telegram. The boy became deathly quiet. He said to his coach, “My father died this morning. Is it all right if I miss practice today?”
The coach put his arm around him and said, “Take the rest of the week off, son. And you don’t even need to plan to come back for the game on Saturday.”
Saturday arrived and the game was not going well. In the third quarter, when the team was ten points behind, the young man quietly slipped into the empty locker room and put on his football gear. As he ran to the sidelines, the coach and his players were astounded to see their faithful teammate back so soon.
“Coach, please let me play. I’ve just got to play today,” said the young man. The coach pretended not to hear him. But the young man persisted, and finally he agreed to put him in.
“Alright,” he said. “You can go in.”
Before long, the coach, the players and everyone in the stands could not believe their eyes. This little unknown, who had never played before was doing everything right. The opposing team could not stop him. He ran, he passed, blocked, and tackled like a star. His team began to triumph.
The score was soon tied. In the closing seconds of the game, this kid intercepted a pass and ran all the way for the winning touchdown. The fans broke loose. His teammates hoisted him onto their shoulders. Such cheering you’ve never heard before.
Finally, after the stands had emptied and the team had showered and left the locker room, the coach noticed that this young man was sitting quietly in the corner all alone. The coach came to him and said, “Kid, I can’t believe it. You were fantastic! Tell me what got into you? How did you do it?” He looked at the coach, with tears in his eyes, and said, “Well, you knew my dad died, but did you know that my dad was blind?” The young man swallowed hard and forced a smile, “Dad came to all my games, but today was the first time he could see me play, and I wanted to show him I could do it!”
We all want to win, but sometimes we lose sight of the more important things. Sometimes it really IS about how we play the game, because how we play sports will affect how we live our lives.
This post is dedicated to my favorite athletes – The Tulsa Golden Hurricanes and the Tulsa Spirit Squads. If you didn’t stay up late on Saturday night, you might not even know that they played until the early morning hours of Sunday, eating peanut butter sandwiches at half-time. They played after a lightning storm postponed the game, making the field wet and slippery. They played after G.J. Kinne was taken out of the game by a late hit in the first quarter and Kalen Henderson was called upon to lead his teammates. Ja’Terian Douglas rushed for 173 yards and Trey Watts rushed for 159 yards, career highs for both players. They didn’t make excuses or explanations. And I believe they triumphed over the odds when the deck was stacked against them and that makes them champions in my book!