For most of my life, I never understood the joy so many people get from watching other people play sports. Honestly, watching grown men chasing a ball for millions of dollars just seemed ridiculous to me. Didn’t they have better things to do with their lives?
My dislike of sports and utter disdain for watching such events might have forever remained had I not married a man who loved American football as well as European football (aka soccer). I tried hard to change my attitude. On Sunday afternoons, I would sit with Ken on the couch while he watched his favorite NFL team battle it out on the field. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind that I paid more attention to the book I was reading than the game.
Before long, Ken and I had two sons, and he couldn’t wait until they were old enough to play soccer. As soon as Kendrick turned five, Ken signed him up to play. A couple of years later, Keaton was also old enough for soccer, and somehow we were able to get both our boys on the same team. Perhaps because Ken decided to coach that year or perhaps because our hometown was still pretty small back then and they didn’t have enough players for every age group. Whatever the reason, my sons would be in high school before they played soccer for the same team again.
Little did I know soccer was only the beginning. Between them, they did it all. Swimming, karate, basketball, baseball, wrestling, and football. As a parent, it was exhausting and a lot of work. In addition to just getting them to and from practice and games, we were expected to volunteer to run the concession stand, prepare pre-game meals, keep score, move the chains—the jobs were endless. I often hoped all the hard work would pay off in college scholarships.
Although I can’t say that I learned to love sports, I did love watching my sons on the field. It was easy to see that playing a sport was good for both of them. In addition to the physical activity, they both were fortunate to have many great coaches who emphasized the importance of good sportsmanship and teamwork.
A few examples:
When Kendrick was in middle school, he was on the wrestling team. There was another student on the team who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. You read that right. We had a child on the wrestling team who was in a wheelchair. The coach had a walk-on policy so anyone who wanted to be on the team was allowed to join. The young man attended every practice and dressed for every meet. He loved being part of the team but was disappointed that he would never experience an actual match. I was in the stands at the school when our coach approached the coach of the opposing team with an idea. He asked for the other team’s most kind-hearted wrestler, regardless of weight class. The boy in the wheelchair was carried onto the mat by his father. The referee blew the whistle, and the boys “wrestled.” Eventually the kind-hearted wrestler was pinned, and the boy with cerebral palsy was declared the winner. Both teams cheered.
In high school, Kendrick played mid-fielder for the soccer team. One night his team had a home game, and many of our parents were already in the stands when the other team arrived later than expected. They were from a rural school more than an hour away and had had trouble finding our field. We watched the boys as they got off the bus. There weren’t very many of them, and I wondered if there were others who were driving themselves. The loudspeaker crackled and an announcement was made. The visiting team had only 11 players, one of whom was injured. Rather than forfeit the match, the visiting team would play with just 10 on the field. For that reason, our coach decided that we too would field only 10 players. He didn’t have to, but he wanted a fair game. In the second half, one of our players collided with one of their players and both boys had to leave the game. Although we had plenty of kids who could have stepped in for our injured player, our coach declined. Now the game would be played nine-on-nine. Our boys easily defeated the smaller team, but, in my mind, the lesson in sportsmanship held far more value than the victory.
Keaton had a similar experience when he played high school football. Unlike the soccer games, which typically were only attended by the players’ parents, high school football games are an event. It often felt like the entire town turned out. Although typically the visitor’s side was as jam-packed as the home team side, I remember one Friday night when the opposing team had no one in the stands. Our side, as always, was filled to capacity. The other team was no match for ours, and we quickly pulled way ahead. I don’t remember the score, but even before halftime it was something ridiculous. Maybe 40-0. Late in the fourth quarter, the other team finally managed to score, and we all cheered. Yes, our fans cheered when the other team scored. None of us wanted the opposing team, with no fans in the stands, to go home on the losing end of a shutout. So we cheered when they scored. We also let out a collective groan when we saw the flag on the field. It was against the team that had just scored, and we all expected the goal would be nullified. But then the announcement came. “The penalty on the field is declined.” We all stood and cheered even louder. We were happy for the other team and proud of our coach for declining a penalty that enabled the other team to score. Sportsmanship wins again.
My boys are in college now and neither play on a school team, so my fantasies of a soccer or football scholarship didn’t materialize. No matter. Ken was right to get them involved in sports at a young age. It helped them to grow up strong and pushed them to work hard for what they wanted. Most of all, they learned that being a team player is about much more than just the game. And that’s a great lesson even if they never again step foot on a ball field.
Top photo: Kendrick (left, age 7) and Keaton (right, age 5) in 2008, the first year Keaton played soccer.