From men into boys
It was a seminal event for the boys. Cold drizzle falls on the yellowing field, worn and weary from holding the heavy, lush green of the summer past. With the scoreboard displaying 26 points for the home team, just 6 for the visitors, and only 33 seconds left to tick away, the coach for the home team calls a timeout.The defense has been tested, but the 8- and 9-year-old players are not crushed. They still smile at each other in the huddle. As is the nature of games, the boys love this even though it has threatened to outlast their collective attention span on this afternoon. The boys in the offensive huddle are faring the same. They wonder if there will be time to ride bikes when they get home. Many wouldn’t know the score except for the lighted display behind their backs and the shouts from the stands. They care only in passing, anyway.The coach for the home team runs to the huddle to make sure everyone knows what to do. He’s yelling out orders. His excitement energizes the boys. The chance for one more run at glory captivates them for a moment, again. The quarterback hollers the count just like his hero, just like his father told him. The ball is snapped and the orchestrated motion begins. The back takes the handoff and heads around the end. He’s the fastest kid on the field and makes it to the corner. Nobody can catch him from here and he sprints into the end zone. The crack of a gun sends both teams to their respective sidelines. The game is over.The casual observer can’t tell which team was successful. Kids are kids; victory is a feeling of happiness and a sense of well-being. They magically possess the inability to quantify success. They don’t feel the burden of pressure in an immature world where they are only contented or not. They are of an age where they still take genuine delight in the happiness of others.Things change on the sideline. The coaches for the winners are overjoyed. They can’t suppress their emotions. They hoist kids in the air and slap high-fives. They have achieved a respite from the world that has woken them too early from their own dreams, leaving them forever running in the sand. On the other side of the field, things are different. Coaches console their boys for the injustice they have just suffered. They talk over the kids’ heads about “running up the score” and “classless acts” and “humiliation.” Parents gather from the stands in a band, wondering what to do next. “Don’t worry,” the head coach says consolingly. “We won’t forget this.” After they coax him to say it a few more times, they believe him. They are sure he won’t forget. Neither will they.On the drive home, the boys ask their parents the meaning of the coach’s anger. The parents explain that the other team shouldn’t have taken that last timeout so they could score one more touchdown.”Aren’t they supposed to try to score touchdowns?” a boy asks his father.”Not in that situation,” the father tells him.In another car a boy asks, “Is that cheating, Dad?””No, son,” his father says. “It’s just the principle.””Why is coach so mad?” another asks his mom.”Because they embarrassed us,” is her honest answer.”Are they bad?””Yes!”Then the kids are embarrassed. They only vaguely understand the principle involved. They feel ashamed anyway. It’s because their parents have told them they should be, and they trust their parents.At practice on Monday, the coach gathers the team. His words tell the kids not to feel bad about what happened on Saturday. His demeanor says something different. He still feels the sting. The boys feel guilty because each of them had nearly forgotten about the humiliation they suffered.Throughout the rest of the season the coach often refers to “that incident.” He always mentions it just before he utters his mantra, “How bad do you boys want to win?” It’s not a question and the boys respond appropriately to the command.After the season, the boys notice that the parents continue talk about “that game.” When they see the coach around town, he always mentions it. He pats the child’s head, but looks the parent in the eye, “Are you excited about football?” They talk with lighter hearts and sometimes even with a smile or laugh. But, they still talk about it.The next season finally comes. At the first practice, coach tells some of the dads that if the only win he gets all season is against “that team,” it will be a good year. They laugh. But, they haven’t forgotten.The day of the big game arrives. The coaches have shown the boys a few new tricks. The boys have been warned that they can never give up, and they don’t. The boys score lots of points for the coach and for their families. Each time they run off the field they are overjoyed that they have pleased the coach. The coach slaps them on the shoulder pads so hard that it hurts, but he doesn’t look into their young eyes. He’s staring across the field at the other coach and their hideous fans, and players who aren’t so smug as he imagined them last year.At the end of the day, the boys have performed well. They have outscored the other team by four touchdowns. They have avenged last year’s loss, aggrieved a terrible injustice, and settled the score. They can once again hold their heads high. At least until next year when the other team will come for revenge.They won’t forget. On the winner’s sideline, through grinning teeth, the coach offers just three words, each one’s meaning carrying the full weight of the transformation that has just taken place:”Nice work, men!” Roger Marolt knows that kids have to grow up. He just wonders if it has to happen so soon. Coach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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