No Pain…No Gain; And other trite things that are true

As Ithaca’s talented quarterback took a knee inside his own ten yard line and the final seconds of a truly great football came ticked off, my mind flashed through 50-some years of sporting events as I tried to find one that was more meaningful than the one I just witnessed. By now you know that the Boyne City Ramblers had a first and goal from the seven yard line with over 1 minute to play and no timeouts. They trailed Ithaca by four points, and the Yellowjackets’ 68 game winning streak was in peril.

But Ithaca was in no mood for an upset and in an act of desperation that paid off, they stopped Boyne City on four straight plays. All the Boyne City supporters who were already making plans for a trip to Ford Field in Detroit, sat in stunned silence as the fourth down play was stuffed. As the Ithaca fans erupted in the kind of jubilation usually reserved for the end of world wars, the Rambler fans emerged from their trance to loudly salute both teams. The collective exhaling by the thousands of Ithaca fans as the clock went to zero certainly changed the barometric pressure over Midland.

I walked over to the gate from which the players would eventually exit, but I couldn’t help myself and wandered out on to the field. The Ramblers were circling around their head coach, Dave Hills, and I wanted desperately to hear what he could possibly say after this devastating loss. As a coach I have often had to say goodbye to seniors after the baseball playoffs are over. Every high school baseball team loses its last game except for the four State Champions. If you have a great senior class, it’s the hardest ritual a coach has to perform. You often hear coaches say that making cuts is the hardest thing. But as difficult as that is, saying goodbye to great young men is far more painful.

But I didn’t encroach on Coach Hills’ moment with his team. As much as I thought I could learn from him, the preservation of that moment seemed more important. As the huddle broke up and the players started looking for family members and heading to the locker room, Coach Hills called his players back. He told them to go and salute the fans who had been so much a part of the team’s success. Multiple fan busses had left Boyne City the morning of the game and hundreds of townspeople lined up to send the team off toward Midland. Coach Hills was right to acknowledge how much this team had meant to Boyne City.

As I waded into the crowd of players, families, and fans, I sought out the players who I knew either through baseball or through the classroom. Most had tears running down their face, and even those who tried to buck it up couldn’t keep the red from welling up in their eyes.

I don’t know how long they stayed there on that field with each other. I walked away and headed to the parking lot profoundly sad for a group of really terrific kids. I walked past the end zone and looked at those last few feet which separated the agony these kids were feeling from the triumph being celebrated on the Ithaca sideline. It’s natural to wonder if all that pain was worth it. Not just the physical pain of a hard fought game that manifested itself in the limps, trickles of blood, and swollen fingers of the players. It was the mental pain of knowing that it is almost impossible to get physically closer to a goal and then be powerless to take that final step because the clock has run out.

I got to wondering just how these kids will erase the emotion of this loss. And then I realized they won’t. My last high school baseball game stays with me as if it happened more recently than 40 years ago. We lost our district game to our arch-rival by one run. In one of the two or three most athletic plays I ever made, I ran deep into the gap on a long fly ball, dove, caught the ball, only to see it fall to the ground when our centerfield violently collided with me. I spent the rest of that day in the hospital and the rest of my life wondering just what could have happened if I had been able to hang on to that ball.

Quality kids will tell you that whatever pain they are feeling after a loss like this one is worth it. All of it. Losing a game like this is something many high school kids will never have to endure…and they are not better because of that fact. As in my day, too many kids sit on the sidelines of life, too afraid to fail. And they are safer. And they have lost a lot more than the Boyne City kids lost on a cold and misty day in Midland. And they are not happier.

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