Thursday, November 10, 2005

Playoffs return

Tomorrow night across Arkansas, the yearly rite of passage for young student-athletes from high schools public and private will begin on the gridiron. Playoff football has been around for all of my lifetime and I had the privelege of playing in the AR football playoffs in 1986. My team had a bad first quarter and spent the rest of the game playing catch-up. Almost caught the 2nd ranked team in AR in the 4th quarter, but too little, too late. It was the coldest temperature I ever endured on the gridiron and the game was in S. Arkansas of all things.

These are the moments many of the kids will treasure for a lifetime. After my team lost, a particular player who had long had a bit of an attitude problem was bawling after an effort no one would have predicted a year prior. He was a selfish player who shirked authority. His senior year as a running back and safety was the height of his life. He literally played his heart out and I felt nothing but admiration for him during and after that game. He impelled the team to scratch and claw its way back into the game and with his iron will, we almost pulled off what seemed impossible at halftime.

Unfortunately, the gutty player everyone thought to be a selfish, undisciplined football player had certainly reached his peak. The next year, he stabbed a man to death in a Great Lakes city and was sent to prison. The reason for the stabbing, I'm told, was a dispute over illegal acts both had been committing at the time. For what it's worth, the night on the gridiron in S. Arkansas proved to me once-and-for-all that the young man had heart and had at least a degree of integrity. Growing up in a small, poor town didn't give him much of a chance to succeed in life. He made the key decisions that led to a life where murder and mayhem follow as viable courses of action, so he's responsible. Society didn't tell him to move up north and take up criminal activity.

I choose to remember the young man as he was that senior season on my hometown football team. Several of my friends from that team are dead or in prison and I miss them all. Some have built good lives for themselves and for those folks, I commend them. Student-athletes are best advised not to take these days for granted. Time spent on the practice field, the weight room, and the gridiron are not moments to mechanically endure; enjoy every moment while you have a chance to shine. From Fayetteville to Eudora, Pocahontas to Texarkana, student-athletes will have an opportunity to shine and impel themselves to play their hearts out and leave their best on the field. Some will have played their last high school football game tomorrow evening; for them, my advice is to use the experience as a beginning, not an ending. Redeem the lessons you've learned and the capacities your body has exhibited for good use. If times are down and you seem to have no hope, remember how you gutted through the last windsprints at the end of practice or how you hustled every moment on the field and made plays you otherwise wouldn't have made had you stopped and watched the action as it passed you by.

It's always a joy to see all the cities and small towns who earned the honor of playing for a state title. Immutable lessons are learned in sport and the common thread for us all is the yearning to compete and succeed at challenging activities. Football is a challenge that most never experience. For those kids, I'm sorry you didn't take the opportunity, got cut from the team, or for health reasons couldn't participate. Most of the moments on the field will linger in the minds of these kids for a lifetime. Congratulations to those who survive this week and for those who will be unbeaten in the playoffs at the end. For those who play for the eventual champions of each classification, ENJOY! Even if you play in college, there are no guarantees you'll not be injured or that your dreams will emerge as you'd hoped. Some will become big names in college play; some will not. I wish all these young men all the best in their lives.

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