Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Son Also Rises



“Hard work PAYS OFF” – Chant and Mantra of the Weaver Football Titans Senior football team, 2008

I was never a ‘real’ team-sport athlete. I think I was drawn more toward individual performance than that of a team. I ran Cross-Country and track in high school, and there certainly were team scores. But I was more keenly interested in - and aware of - the result I posted for each meet. If the team won but I’d had a bad performance, I felt no sense of victory; in some way, I didn’t feel I’d “won”, despite the points I may have contributed toward the team total.

My son Luc, however, is a different kind of animal: he is a born ‘team player’. He loves the camaraderie of a playing unit, doing his best for the greater good of his team, individual performance as a part of the machine of team competitiveness. He’s a social guy with an easy smile, sense of humor, and a fierce competitive instinct. He lives for game day. He’s one of those kids that is best when ‘it counts’. Even when he was a more junior player, I noticed a change in him on game day – a focus and determination that we in the running world refer to as ‘race day magic’. He’d get on the field and deliver. There was no joking on the sidelines. He’d sit or stand alone and intently watch the action on the field. His coaches would ask him to make a big play, he’d promise, then deliver on the promise.

He has been lucky to have been part of a youth program since the 4th grade, with talented, decent, and hard-working coaches who never confused winning on the field with winning in life. I would call the headcoach jokingly The Man with the Whistle. The coaches' job was to teach the game of football, but much more than that, they wove in lessons of teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play. You couldn’t come to practice if you hadn’t completed your homework. They often told the players to thank their parents for having driven them to the game or to practice. Their style was about guiding these young teenagers through a slice of life using the field of play as the chalkboard. At the end of each practice, the team would cluster together around the coaches for a few words, and it would end with the head coach yelling HARD WORK and boys would reply PAYS OFF! They always left each practice and game with these last words.

The team played well, had a near-perfect record, and made the playoffs as they had in years past. However this season was different – this young team won its first ever playoff game and headed into the second round. Luc had a great season and seemed – to my untrained eye – to be all over the field in every game. His competitive spirit would show up when he’d make a great tackle, cause a fumble, sack the quarterback. But he was definitely part of a bigger unit. He’d jump up after a great play and find a teammate to do a raucous chest bump or share a high five. He never celebrated alone. He cheered his teammates accomplishments with equal enthusiam. He left everything on the field, even when the scoreboard would tell a story that would say well before the final horn declared It’s over. After the one loss during the regular season to a hated rival team - known for dirty play and unsportsmanlike conduct from the coaching staff on down – I watched the team, and my son, during the post-game coaches talk. It had been a warm and humid morning, and boys who had played sat exhausted, soaked with sweat and dirt, their faces grim. Normally, these gatherings were one of uncontained teenage joy, the only kind that can be expressed by those young enough to have little to worry about beyond the next five minutes. I watched my son, his helmet off. He bit his lower lip and I saw a tear fall from his eye. He wiped it quickly away. The coaches called out the names of 3 players, recognizing their effort. Luc was the third player called. The head coach said I want you to look at him. They turned their heads. Luc never gave up. He never quit. To me, that is the highest praise given. I’d seen Luc chase down a player and tackle him just as he crossed into the end zone. He fell on the other player’s legs, knocking his own wind out. I saw him on all fours, and then try and stand upright. His knees buckled twice, but he fought to his feet. He jogged over, then fell and rolled on the ground. He got up again. He would not come out. He did not want to sit a single down. The coach’s words were small comfort to Luc. He didn’t smile or acknowledge any sense of accomplishment. He would have traded the praise and the loss for anonymity and the win in a second.

The Weaver Titans were certainly underdogs headed into the playoffs, but my son had a fervent belief they could make – and win! – the league’s Super Bowl. One day I was making him breakfast, I asked him a question. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I asked him the question: was it my own ego at play? I’d heard from so many parents and coaches – dads in particular – about what a fine player Luc was. And of course I agreed with them because I’m his mother: To me, he’s potentially the second coming. I think it was also a bit of the runner in me looking for some kind of individual performance gauge beyond the team record. Do you think you’ll make the Super Senior Bowl? This game is the league’s equivalent of the All-Star team. He leveled his eyes at me and replied – without hesitation, No. There was no disappointment in his voice. I was confused. Why not? He gave me one of his easy smiles, Because you don’t play in that game if you’re in the Super Bowl. My 14-year-old son gave me the best lesson I’ve ever had with those simple words. Not only was he unconcerned about individual accolades, it wasn’t a factor. He wanted to share in a team honor. But bigger than that, I was struck with the depth of conviction in the belief that they’d win. Despite their record and ranking and a calculated match-up of team size and strength, this did not factor. He believed the team could and would win.

They played the second playoff game and lost. If one could boil it down to the one thing, that one card they had that we didn’t, it was speed that we couldn’t match: If you can’t catch the guy, you pretty much can’t stop him. Our team fought valiently, they never gave up. Luc never, ever quit. Even when their top threat went sprinting toward the end zone, Luc was the last guy to chase him down and threw himself at him at the 4 or 5 yard line in a desperate - and ultimately unsuccessful - attempt to keep him from the end zone. The team kept trying. On their last possession, on 4th and something, it was the last shot. They were down 12 points and needed a score, and then some luck with an onside kick. They needed some last minute heroics. They believed. We – in the stands – cheered our boys on. The Titans QB shouted the cadence. The ball was snapped, and something happened. I’m not sure if it was a bad snap or a missed count or what, but the play never got off; it was over before it even started. And like that, the season was over, and my son’s elementary and middle school football seasons were behind him.

At the final post-game team debriefing, the boys each took a knee on the field. They were so quiet. I looked at the group and couldn’t find Luc, although I knew he was there. An official from the league’s governing body stepped up and offered words of encouragement, praise in the blunt, tough voice of football to which I’ve come to expect. I know you’re disappointed. But tomorrow will come and it will be a day of opportunity. Take that feeling with you to next season. I’m not sure his words registered with any of the players. He then called the numbers of those players who’d been selected for the Super Senior Bowl. Luc’s was not one of them. Again, the individual athlete in me ached for my son, but my face and demeanor did not change. The This is not about me or my expectations was the Yin to the This is what can happen when anything but the clock is the judge Yang. A second later a father who was behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Luc had a great game. I smiled, Thanks. I don’t know if he felt my disappointment for my son, or my own ego. I was trying to anticipate my son’s face. I looked in the clot of purple jerseys and still couldn’t find him. Each coach spoke; many of them wept. They hurt for the boys, but I think they couldn't believe that the fun - the season - was over. The bond between these players and these coaches was nothing short of magic. And in the 5 years my son was lucky enough to be coached by these men, I was coached too. I learned how to take a step back, how to let my son play, to take my own ideas out of the mix and have faith in this wonderful group of dedicated volunteers. I watched as they gave these boys the well-earned confidence to play each game with enthusiasm and passion. I felt such sadness that their roles in my son's life had come to an end. They offered a some final words of encouragement then gathered the team in a tight mass. The head coach - the man with the whistle - yelled HARD WORK and they answered in unison and without hesitation PAYS OFF! and the meeting broke up.

My son walked over to me; he was sobbing. His disappointment was overwhelming, his grief palpable. I hugged my boy who is a full head taller than I. I could hardly get my arms around his padded shoulders. I kissed his sweaty face. Luc, I’m so sorry. I’m so proud of you. He buried his face in my neck and let me hug him for a moment, then pushed away, inconsolable. He did not seek out his teammates. My tough son who never quit was now working through the agonizing math of shattering disappointment. He invested heavily in hope and was living the hard side of the equation of a sporting contest.

I thought about how much courage it takes to do that, to believe that fervently and put so much hope and stock in that belief. To put so much emotional capital on the line. The disappointment can be crippling, and there are some who can somehow put it in context and move on, to dare to do great things with equal persistance, and those who retreat to the safety of banality and – to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt – prefer the gray twilight and know neither victory nor defeat. I knew in some sense what he was feeling, and I thought long and hard about how he individually mourned his team’s defeat. But in some small way, I thought he was also mourning the end of the season, the end of this team and how he’d move on next year beyond the safety net of the players and coaches he knew and loved.

I saw him walk off the field with his dad – we had come in separate cars for logistical reasons – and I wondered what that car ride home would be like. Teenage boys naturally gravitate to their fathers, and I envied not being the ‘go to’ person like I’d been when Luc was a young child. My heart ached for my son. I knew this was a necessary part of life, a key ingredient to the foundation of character: to face disappointment, to manage the process, to find the meaningful lesson. And most importantly, to move on to the next pursuit wiser, but with no less enthusiasm or fearlessness. I hoped he’d find the courage to believe again; I was certain he would. Like all parents, I prayed that one day he’d be on the winning end of the equation, and feel the uncontained joy of living the dream. But at the moment, I was Luc's mother; I just wanted my boy to be happy.

I arrived home and he came down the stairs a few minutes later, freshly showered. His face was no longer a study in grief. Are you hungry? He smiled a bit, No just really thirsty. Can I have a Gatorade? I got my son his drink and put a frozen pizza in the oven, certain that his appetite would arrive soon after he quenched his thirst. He went into the family room and turned on the television. His sister came home from a babysitting job, and after hearing about the loss, she went to join him.

The next day, he needed to run an errand, something for school. It was a rare opportunity for me to spend some ‘alone’ time with him; for me it was a blessing it came the day after this game. I didn’t mention the previous evening, just chatted about his homework project and what else he was planning to do with his day. There was a lull in the conversation, and he said quietly I’m still bummed we lost. I can’t believe football is over. I can’t believe I won’t be playing for Weaver anymore. I sat for a second more, waiting for him to express disappointment over not making the Super Senior Bowl. But he said nothing else. I told him a story of my biggest disappointment in high school track. It was so disappointing, Luc. All those miles of training, and my relay team was passed with a hundred meters to go… and then I told him how you move on, find the lesson. And that he should look not at the last loss, but all he’d gained from his years with his wonderful friends and coaches, how he learned respect, and fair play, and to “pursue victory with honor” – another cornerstone of the program. And how the hated rival may win, but in the long run he will have gained infinitly more. He nodded his head. He didn’t seem sad, but I could tell he was still working through the regret of the previous evening.

We walked in the house, and within an hour two of his buddies were at the door - one a teammate, the other a neighbor. They'd been to a video game store and had bought Luc a game – a belated birthday gift. I went upstairs to fold laundry. As I walked up the stairs, I heard them chatting in the patois of teenage boys, sentances heavily peppered with the word Dude. I didn’t hear what they were saying and continued my ascent. And as I reached the landing, I heard the sweet, healing music of their laughter.

For you, Luc, and the men with the whistles.

13 comments:

Frannie B said...

Wow! Your gift for capturing the spirit of the love of sport is truly amazing. My heart ached for Luc reading his football story. Someday, he's going to love reading what he probably didn't realize what was happening, but you managed to document so well.

Great picture of Luc-er too!
Frannie

Gettin Older said...

I love to read what you write. I don't know that I was ever blessed with Luc's intensity. I can see why you are so proud of him.

Arete said...

Loved it! Very moving!

Masters Lurker said...

Monica, clever play on words with the Hemingway reference in the title.

As usual, nice piece of writing. Even though it wasn't really about football, I cannot resist anything to do with that sport, whether it be Canadian or American.

ML

JohnTheDork said...

Monica,

I called in for a vacation day when I heard you had another blog post. You have such a wonderful an insightful writing style. After reading the latest post about your son during my breakfast, lunch and dinner, your enthusiasm, love and admiration for your son comes shining through. It's no wonder your son is such a hard worker and passionate athlete. He's a chip off the old block!

Kati said...

Aptly titled Monica. The Sun Also Rises, my personal favorite because of the raw feelings expressed without need to explain.

Beautiful piece by Moon - that one who surprises each time she shines so beautifully and brightly on my spirit!

Gregory said...

MarathonMoon,

Another great entry and well worth the wait. Very moving and emotional and your son will definitely be better in the future for everything he went through. "Hard work - Pays off!" For sure...Thank you for sharing! :-)

Gregory (Pudov)

John Fenton said...

Beautiful, Moon. You really are a gifted writer.

Anonymous said...

Moooon-a-leh.... mwaaaah! You're the best, and Luc too. And I never even met him! From Elie

Raymond said...

As usual, another masterpiece of literary art. Even though it's been many years since my H.S. football days, I well remember the emotions you speak of associated with Luc. Speaking from the male perspective, you capture the feelings and mood very well with your words.

Deck Ape said...

Hmmm, to think that all those thoughts came out of such a small package... :) Great as usual Moon...

Raymond said...

Hi Monica .... just touching base to wish you a very happy 2009. Can we pleeeze try to meet up this year? I'm dying to meet the lady behind the literary masterpieces.

209Mike said...

First of all, wanted to say how great your comment was about Cody on Mickey's page today(3/11 - That's what landed me here). It was everything that I'd want to say but couldn't put into words. On the lighter side...You should write more often because you've got a nice gift. Very enjoyable reading your posts.