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Perspective: by Jerry Pyle
Something More Than Winning
It was a pretty good week for Cobber sports. Our athletes came back to campus. The veterans returned as old friends.
And the rookies transformed themselves from being occasional voices on the other end of recruiting calls into real, live, flesh-and-blood Cobbers.
Most of our athletes were refreshed by the summer recess.
Many, some more than others, made themselves stronger and quicker through off-season conditioning programs. All are older and a little wiser than when we saw them last. And, even though most are very focused on having a successful year, each came to campus looking for something more than just winning.
The sports world of late, perhaps forever, has groped for a consensus as to the nature of that "something more" that athletes seem to always seek, the absence of which makes winning seem so empty, and losing seem so cruel.
For the professional athlete, there is surely some solace found in the financial rewards for winning. And, for those semi-pro athletes who labor in big-time college programs, there is, at least, the reassurance that playing the game covers much of the cost of an education.
But most athletes, even those who are well paid, continue to talk of the need for something more. The search goes on.
The NBA is growing by touting "entertainment" over wins and losses, the satisfaction of having put on a "good show." Pro hockey remains devoted to selling the macho satisfaction of winning the fight even if you lose the game. Pro wrestling thrives by selling its imagined battles between good and evil, using juiced up gladiators, most of whom will soon be dead from mysterious thyroid disorders. Professional football markets itself as war games, with its city-against- city, casualty rates, hit men, and attack formations.
International sports federations still make appeals founded on rabid nationalism as the ticket to a sense of athletic fulfillment.
Thoughtful athletes continue to reject these premises as contrived, hardly the "something more" they seek as they play their games.
Two incidents from last year's Cobber sports seasons come to mind as vignettes about that "something more" that we've tried to nurture. (Each coach here could give you others.) After the Lady Cobber basketball team lost the game that would have gotten them into the NCAA Final Four, a season-ending get-together was held back at the hotel. Pop and pizza around the pool. Nothing formal. Mostly just parents, teammembers, coaches and fans savoring a good year and telling stories. Putting the long season's journey into context. Some crying. Some laughing. A time for the seniors to gently begin the somber process of no longer being part of the team. A time to thank a possibly-departing coach for years of sound guidance.
Amidst this celebration of life and fellowship, a Cobber fan approached one of our players and began to chide her for that evening's loss to the best team in the nation. He cited her weaknesses as a player (every player has them) with a tone of righteous personal resentment.
Perhaps in some programs the comments would have been regarded as understandable. We lost. The fan paid his money to see us win. He's got a right to expect a "winner" and voice his opinion. It's a cold world and players need to accept that kind of talk if they put themselves in the limelight as an athlete for the college.
But not here. And especially not then.
This fan's ill-timed condescension struck such a discordant note in our gathering that those who heard it were at first dumbfounded. Then hurt. And then angry. But, to our players' immense credit, there quickly emerged a "Why don't you get-a-life?" consensus toward the fan. They knew there was something far more important going on that evening than counting wins or projecting next year's record.
The second vignette occurred earlier, when the Cobber football team played St. John's in the Metrodome last November 10th. Going in, the implications of the game were such that defining a winner and a loser seemed paramount.
The winner would get a share of the title and the loser would get a tie for third. The winner had a shot at getting a playoff spot and the loser was clearly done for the year. The winner would get a year's worth of bragging rights in a long and intense rivalry.
But it didn't turn out that way. Even those who came into that game with the most narrow focus on winning were forced to see something more. They saw a game filled with passion but without rancor, collisions without violence, high drama without sadness. And winners without any real losers. Both teams played with such grace, tenacity, skill, and intelligence that the final score (Cobbers 30, Johnnies 28) became as irrelevant as one can imagine in such things.
The post-game handshakes and the hugs between opposing players were earnest and heartfelt. Many fans and coaches lingered after the game, just staring at the field, renewed by having witnessed such character and grit, something we too often fail to see in our nation's youth.
One-by-one the weary players trickled out of the lockerroom, each looking to make eye contact with a witness to the game, seeking reassurance that their perception of having taken part in something very special was valid.
"Wasn't that something?" they would say. Yes it was.
Something far more than just winning.
We think our athletes who registered for class last week can feel pretty confident that, in addition to their share of wins this year, they'll find that "something more" here.
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