I love to watch athletes compete…any age, any level…just lay it all out there and try, find a way, play better than anyone ever thought you could. Runners best their career time, diving shortstops covered in dirt, cross-country runners busting the tape with nothing left, talking to their legs and ordering them forward by sheer grit and will. And of course I love the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat when it’s tempered with grace and humanity. That’s the greatness of sport, finding what we have deep down inside, our will, our passion, the uncovering of an indomitable spirit not evident in other parts of our personhood.
As a lover of sport, I’ve had my fill of the media coverage about the culture of football locker rooms. I don’t have much comfort to offer men making millions playing a game in front of adoring fans, when they begin talking about not being able to get along. And I’m guilty as the next fan of the worshipful way we watch and gossip about college football and the demigods strapping on brand new uniforms each week. Any idea what it costs to outfit an entire college football team in new uniforms and helmets each week? $100,000. Black out uniforms, camo uniforms, pink uniforms, Halloween uniforms, retro unies. I’ve never seen Oregon wear the same helmets and uniforms in the same year. They wear a new ensemble each game like divas dressing from chandeliered closets. What happened to simple light and dark home and away unies?
I’m at the office on a Saturday morning and I switched on ESPN and saw this stunning earth-shattering tidbit scrolling along the screen. ESPN listed 4 & 5 star high school football recruits who will be attending the Alabama-LSU college football game tonight. Really? Oh my.
My wife, Karen, came of age right on the coat tails of Title IX, playing field hockey and softball and basketball in New Jersey and she struggles with the glorification culture of sport, particularly men’s sports, more specifically football. My wife hates football. Not really, our son played youth football and high school football so she learned to watch, and she does watch some college football. But she did hate football before her son started playing. Not so much the sport and the competition, but rather the adulation and phony machismo that some young men apply to their sense of self like an overdose of Brute cologne.
And so it’s been refreshing to watch a group of college women mature and come together without fanfare and attention and adulation and fresh uniform design for each game. We’ve watched Harding University Lady Bisons win six games in a row. It’s fun to watch them win but it’s not the winning I’m proud of, it’s how they’ve come together and played hard and jelled as a team, playing soccer with passion and abandon like they did when they played youth soccer and enjoyed orange slices and juice box drinks with straws after the game. Smiling, cheering, yelling, competing, diving, sweating, working, just leaving it all on the field. It’s great stuff to watch and I’m proud of all the girls, but especially the seniors, Erin Haltiwanger, Allison Ritchie, Hannah Hatcher, Jenna Taylor and Ashley Martin. They’ve finished their careers outside the limelight, but they’ve worked just as hard and played with as much passion and had as much fun as those guys wearing fresh uniforms each week and playing in front of 80,000 fans. They’ve finished with class and style. They are what is good and right and healthy about sports and about life.
And so today, my daughter Jenna played her final college soccer game on the windswept plains of western Oklahoma in front of an enthusiastic but sparse crowd of supporters. There were no ESPN banners or cameras, no Game Day crew, no media credentials were extended. They finished as Great American Conference runner-up but they are champions for how they’ve played this fall.
I stood in a cluster of parents on the opposite side of the field and watched her waddle towards us for the last time, wide-gaited because there were two giant ice bags on each knee looking like jumbo snow cones. Two ACL surgeries, two MCL tears, a high ankle sprain, several concussions, scars from stitches in her noggin. Her uniform is dirty and grass stained, she spends a lot of time on the ground.
She made first team all-conference and I suppose that honor will be framed and hung on a wall in her home someday. I don’t need to see that to know she’s a champion and that she loves the game, loves the contact, the battle, the competition. She’s twenty-one years old. I started watching her play when she was five, before the scars and ice packs and surgeries and stitches. She never quit trying through it all, the injuries, the pain, the rehabilitation, the tears, the losses. She’s always been able to smile through it all and that’s what I’ve loved the most about her. That smile, that joy in playing, that pure love of the game.
Today, I watched her walk across the field wearing a champion’s smile on her beautiful face. Way to finish young lady, way to finish. You walked off this field a champion, and you’ve been a champion every step of the way.