That Championship Season
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Henry V, William Shakespeare
There is a weathered show box in my den that hides inconspicuously behind uneven, dusty piles of rubber banded baseball card and old Sports Illustrated magazines. The contents of this magical ark are talismans of my youth – awards, medals, merit badges and obscure honors bestowed for noble deeds and feats of athleticism and academic excellence. The artifacts have miraculously survived my teenaged years, college, first apartment, starter home, as well as moves to and from Europe. Each time I pack and unpack the things that I choose to define my material world, I cannot help but open that one time capsule that vaults me back to a vulnerable and powerful time where the mythology of world and all its possibilities stretched before me like a great, dark wood. There is one particular object of enormous sentimental value that rests silently within this box – an odd felt patch that simply says 1973 Green Hornet Award – Champions 1973. It represents the one time in all my years of competitive sports that I played on a championship team.
At 12, I had been part of an eleventh hour trade – the kind of transaction that is often borne out of the larceny of a parent coach who cannot help taking advantage of a more chaste opposing coach. I was dealt to a new baseball team, (presumably for two pitchers and a kid still in his diapers), that had lost all but one game the prior season. My new coach wanted to win badly but insisted on starting his child at pitcher and shortstop when in fact, his son was already exhibiting signs that he would rather be braiding the hair of his sister’s Barbies than throwing strikes. We all understood in our own way that our coach was attempting to defy Mother Nature at our expense and she was paying us back cruelly with lopsided losses. Son and father finally answered our prayers and quit the team after a spectacular confrontation in the dugout, possibly over shoes that did not match his belt.
A white knight volunteer coach whose children had long since outgrown the confines of a 60-foot diamond rescued us. He was tough – making us run laps and field ground balls off our chest. He yelled. He used running as a cruel reprisal for the simplest infraction. I hated him at first and complained bitterly to my father. After my describing my tormentor, my father chuckled and said, “sounds like Bobby Knight. I like him already.”
After all, I was a pacifist. I wasn’t sure exactly what a pacifist was but it sounded like they never had to run and spent a lot of time in the Pacific ocean. The fact is, if I had been born ten years earlier, I would have been one of those turtle necked peaceniks putting daisies into the barrels of National Guardsman guns at Kent State. I was a heavy kid with a strong arm and big swing but a suburban soft constitution. The coach figured me out as lazy but also pegged me correctly as competitive, people pleaser. At our next practice, he introduced the concept of the “Green Hornet”, an award for the player that exhibited the greatest hustle. “Hustling” to me was walking very fast when everyone else was running. The first evening, I pushed myself hard to win the award. I was thrilled at my ability to avoid being dead last in our sprints. When the award was being presented, I stood up humbly ready to give my acceptance speech. Instead, the award went to Charlie Meagher, a skinny second baseman who insisted on finishing every sprint in first place. He couldn’t even hit and made at least two errors an inning.
For the first few weeks, I decided to be indifferent to winning the coveted Green Hornet – a stupid piece of forest green felt cut into an incomprehensible shape. But I secretly wanted that award. I needed to have it. I asked coach why I had not received the recognition. He looked at me for a long time, choosing the right words. “Because you only give the minimum, Mike. I want 100% from you.” I felt like saying, “I am a kid. We don’t even do percentages until the 8th grade!” But I understood clearly what he was saying. Over the next several weeks, I pushed myself and finally won one of those Green badges. That season, we transformed from the Bad News Bears to a bad neighborhood. Teams dreaded playing us. Some opposing parents resented our success and immediately started to talk about our coach. “He’s so intense!” ” He takes things too seriously. He doesn’t get that this is youth sports.”
We saw it differently. My coach was trying to teach us how to succeed. He never denigrated a single kid. He treated us equally, yet individually administered his theology of competition based on our ability. It was not about winning. It was about giving it everything you had. In sports as in life, the man who wanted it more was the man who usually prevailed. He never took a swing, threw a pitch or fielded a grounder in a single game. It was all us. The day we won the championship, everyone celebrated. He made a point of sharing how every kid had his fingerprints on that trophy. He told us that we would remember this game and this championship forever because he knew a championship is the harmonic convergence of many things – talent, opportunity, heart, preparation, will and character. I can remember each kid at each position, with eye black and caked red dust streaked with sweat. Champions.
It was interesting for me this year to watch as both of my sons’ football teams won hard fought championships. Each boy played his heart out. Both played for tough and demanding coaches. They responded by rising to the occasion and pushing themselves. They wanted a championship – bad. They wanted to don that laurel that the number one man wears, the FCFL Champions jacket with their own name and number embroidered on the sleeve. To wear a jacket like that is to prove you exist. It is the red badge of courage, the uniform of the accomplished. The boys wanted to be part of a tribe that had achieved the very best. Each boy spent over 95 hours on the practice field. I never heard a peep out of them. One night, one of them threw up during a grueling practice. He only expressed astonishment from the fact that one could actually exercise so hard that one could get sick. If it had been me, I would have been calling my attorney, if I had one.
Both championship games were nail biters and will forever be remembered in the folklore of these young men as the 6-0 defensive win over Westport and the 19-12 Ice Bowl victory at Darien. When the gun sounded at the end of the game, the boys celebrated in a manner that only coaches and players know, the boy moving closer to manhood and the coach now a surrogate parent for life.
As our lives sweep into adulthood, we accumulate many things and often lose that shoebox full of treasured memories and mementos. The roar of a crowd, the crack of a bat or the squeaking of high tops on a gymnasium floor triggers a familiar feeling. It is the echo of lost youth and past accomplishments – an energy that never dissipates. The soul of that exact moment lingers. It is the spirit of a time where for once in your life, you gave it everything you had and you were rewarded the ultimate prize. As I listen to my boys preen and recount their accomplishment and as I watch them hug and high five their teammates and coaches, I smile. I mentally open my shoebox and caress that tired scrap of green felt and think, what a season that was …that championship season.