This one is personal to me. I have spent countless number of hours toiling over first a typewriter and now a computer keyboard pounding out story after story for the better part of the last 40 years. They say the eyes are a window into a man’s soul, but for me, it has always been the tips of my fingers, much like I would suspect it is with a blind person.
It has always been my fingers intricately linked to someplace deep inside my head that allows me to show those who have read my written words exactly what it is I see at a sporting event. I’ve always considered myself lucky in the fact I don’t see the touchdown.
Or the home run. Or the winning shot, but rather all the small details that went into each. I’m lucky because I’ve been around so many great men and women in sports who have pushed me to see past those obvious moments.
I’m not sure exactly when I first started doing it, but I know two important factors in it. The first was one of necessity. I spent the better years of my newspaper work filing stories for an afternoon paper, and by the time the reader got to what I wrote, most already knew the final score. They knew the particulars: the who, what, when and where that goes into every morning writer’s lede paragraph. It was my job to paint the how.
And I studied at the bylines of some of this town’s greatest story tellers. I will put my tutelage up against anybody because back in the day there wasn’t a better daily newspaper in the South when it came to sports coverage than the old Chattanooga Free-Press.
It was a competition every day and it was a stiff one.
The second factor in my education was being around great sports people such as Catherine Neely and Susan Thurman. Gene Etter and Joe Adams. These coaches taught me much about everyday life, but they also taught me about all the small things that went into getting to game day. Jim Foster, the great Vanderbilt and UTC coach, used to listen to my questions after a game and then tell me I was asking the wrong ones. He taught me how to ask the important ones, and to never get lost in the endings of competition.
And then there was Henry Davenport, whose kind soul gave me more than I ever gave him. He taught me how to appreciate all the small things in a situation even when all the bad things screamed for your attention.
I have sat in rooms with athletes and coaches alike and cried with them, both in joy and heartbreak. For every competition I have ever written about, I have always seen both sides of it; the pain of setback and the exhilaration of winning with teammates.
None of that has prepared me for what has taken place over the last few weeks as all of us struggle with getting our minds around a virus both silent and invisible, but more disruptive than anything I have ever witnessed. I will never forget the days following 9/11, and I try to imagine all that our greatest generation rose above during World War and the Great Depression. I take solace in knowing we too will survive, just as our grandparents and their parents did, but the losses still cut deeply.
I know that in the grand scheme of things, a missed graduation or athletic competition is such a small price to get our world to a safe and better place. But knowing so many of the small details of what it takes to get to those graduations and competitions must mean something. It needs to be told. And celebrated.
Again, as I have been taught, I know it is so much more than the walk across the stage or getting to that field of play. Bill Curry, the great center from Georgia Tech and later an even wiser coach, gave me a great anecdote one day at lunch. It was at the annual SEC Media days when he headed up the Kentucky program and amongst the small talk, I mentioned to him how I couldn’t believe another year had already passed and we were ready to crank up football season once again.
He asked me how I old I was, to which I replied 35, and he tells me “James, one full year seems to diminish every year of your life because for you it now only represents one-35th of your lifetime.” He went on to explain that “when you were a child it seemed like it took forever for Christmas to get here because as a boy, a full year represented one-fifth or one-tenth of your lifetime. A year at that point in your life was in fact, actually longer to you.”
I’ve thought about that a lot as I’ve listened to the hurt so many of our young athletes and graduates have expressed the past week. Sure, it’s just a graduation or baseball season, but it’s a point in their lives they’ve worked towards for the past four years. Four years to teenager, is roughly one-fourth of their entire life.
I think it’s important to look at those years and understand that journey. Don’t look at the final score for the story, but rather the first and second innings that had to be overcome to produce the game-winner in the final at-bat, my good friend Joe Adams would tell me after one of his Bradley baseball games.
With that, I would like to share with you two stories of two journeys I have followed closely through the years, each struggling with the possibility their perceived finish line won’t be reached as we social distance in place and wait to see.
The first is a young lady. A beautiful and engaging young lady. Her parents will unabashedly tell you she is the apple of their eye, having not once caused them a single day of worry or an ounce of problematic behavior. She went to high school locally where she was second in her graduating class. As athletic as she was smart, she played a key role in leading her softball team to the state tournament and three region titles.
She did all of this while she watched her mother fight a winning battle against breast cancer her senior year never once complaining about the toll it took on her or any of the inconveniences that came with such a courageous fight. Her own fight was for a normal day of school when everything around her seemed to be flipped on its side.
She went off to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville even though that wasn’t her first choice of schools. With her academic standing, she had the choice of many, but the financial toll of beating cancer answers to no one, and again she got caught up in that wreckage. And again, she never complained.
Over the course of the next four years, she mastered the up and downs of a challenging academic major of Biosystems Engineering, falling in love with the professors at UTK along the way and working together in undergraduate research with her favorite. Nearing the end of this final semester and working overtime to complete a year-long senior project to present, that trusted mentor suddenly fell ill and passed away unexpectedly, once again ripping at her fragile heart.
And again, she got off the deck as her background in sports had taught her and forged ahead towards the finish line because she understood the significance of that finish line. She would be the first in her family to walk across a commencement stage with a Bachelor’s degree in hand. She would do something that somehow had eluded every single member on both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family.
We recognize the sweat and tears that oftentimes go into our athletes and their heroics but making it to a college graduation comes with the exact same sweat and the exact same tears and should always be recognized with the exact same admiration. It was to be her crowning glory.
Sports teaches us about persevering and moving on to the next life battle time and again. It’s what I love most about athletics and the people who mold and shape our young people. Teachers. Coaches. They are all one and the same, and I have never had more respect for them than I do today as we face the uncertainty of the unknown.
The beautiful and engaging young lady who would be the first in her family to waltz across the commencement stage has seen that dream shattered amongst the carnage of this virus. Yet, heartbroken once again, she will find a way to move forward as a we all will. If the unknown does indeed cost her that walk, her journey to this point, should never be forgotten. And has been the case for most my life, her story shouldn’t be about the finish line, but rather the amazing journey leading up it. And even more so the promising path still to come.
The second story is about an equally bright young man who just happens to love the game of baseball. He too will graduate among the top five people in his class. Like countless other high school seniors, he awaits the fate of whether spring sports will see the light of day again this year.
He and his teammates were looking forward to a promising last go at it on the diamond. A fantastic group of seniors which his veteran coach told me might well be his favorite class he has ever coached. Combined with a strong corps of talented underclassmen, it was a team that had a feel of special all around it.
For now, though, it sits and waits, wondering what might be and hoping it doesn’t turn into what might have been.
This particular senior player, though, isn’t worried about whether a college coach will get to see him play baseball because as much as he loves it, there has always had a stroke of midnight attached to it for him. And that stroke will hit when he walks off the field his final time this year.
His future was carved out when he scored near perfect on the ACT. Clemson, Auburn and Ole Miss rose to the top of destinations with their offers and none of them had ever seen him throw a baseball. He hopes and prays he hasn’t already seen his last fastball or ran down his last fly ball in the outfield. Mostly, though, he hopes he hasn’t shared a dugout for the final time with the guys he went to battle with the past few years. Or the coaches he has grown to love.
His has been a personal battle as well. Much like the girl above, he survived all the cards dealt as a mother did her best to keep things normal during a cancer fight. He kept most of his feelings to himself during the scare but having just lost his grandfather to the nasty disease, he knew only bad things associated with the cancer word. And although bottled up inside him, he nonetheless lived those months in a constant state of fear. One day he had seen his grandfather, and the next day he was gone, and thoughts of what each passing day might bring consumed him during his mother’s treatment.
And perhaps that is why, when asked his feelings about a possible cancellation of the spring season, he replied: “If that’s the worst thing that happens to me in my life, I’d say I was pretty lucky.”
But the thought of such still pains him. It has been a long road to get this season, and he knows it, although he never complained about the potholes.
He made the decision he wanted more of an academic challenge midway through his freshman year of high school. After visiting the middle college, the STEM school and looking into the International Baccalaureate program, his family made the decision to transfer schools knowing the rigors of an IB diploma was best. The transfer cost him his freshman season of baseball.
Upon joining his new team, and with a year of rust to knock off, he worked hard on the JV squad and was promoted to the varsity late in his sophomore year. Primed to make some noise his junior season, he opened the season as a starter and struggled. What were once routine catches in the outfield became adventures, and when his coaches found nothing wrong with his swing except the results, he finally admitted he was having trouble with his vision.
A visit to the eye doctor soon produced a diagnosis of convergence insufficiency in his eyes which simply meant that his eyes were unable to work together. It caused one of his eyes to turn outward when trying to focus on something creating blurred vision and an inability for depth perception. Neither was a good combination trying to haul in fly balls or hit pitched balls.
He sat out several weeks while he did vision therapy to try to retrain his eyes to work together and by the end of the season found himself contributing again. Nonetheless, it had put a damper on his seasonal expectations.
Fast forward to the weeks leading up to this senior year, and while diving for a sinking liner in the outfield during practice, he burst both bursa sacs in his knee, filling it with fluid and costing him a stint on crutches and several weeks of preseason work.
Through it all, he kept his head down and nose to the grindstone, and on opening day found himself ready to be part of this special season. And it lasted all of one regular season game before getting moth balled. The proudful walk for that IB diploma also put in jeopardy.
As we look out across this great big world of ours today and hear of the heartbreak of seasons and graduations lost, or potentially lost, know that each individual has a story. In the whole scope of things where businesses are in peril and folks’ lives have been significantly impacted, little things such as these might seem inconsequential.
All of us will learn lessons from this, and perspectives will be changed at the end of the day, whenever that is, but in my line of work I still find it worthwhile to look back at the journeys, though they may seem somewhat unfulfilled right now. It came at a price of one-fourth of these kids’ lives.
They say that youth is wasted on the young, but I wholeheartedly beg to differ. I learn each and every day from the ones who cross my path and I am thankful for each of them.
I could have researched more and given dozens of similar stories about young men and women and the journeys they took only to open this door of disappointment. You likely know a story or two yourself, and I hope you will choose to deal not in the dissatisfaction of where their journey is today, but rather on the glorious path that has them here.
I chose to share these two examples because they represent all that is good in one crummy situation.
At the beginning of this long, long tale, I told you it was personal for me. I have been blessed to sit back and watch both of these expeditions unfold. The beautiful young lady was born on the first real Father’s Day which ever meant anything to me, and her name is Emma and she has a very proud pop. The other is his son Connor, and everything you need to know about him could be summed up by what he told his mother just the other day.
While watching all the smart people assuring Americans at the President’s press briefing, he said: “One day, I want to be such an expert in something that a President will step aside and defer to what I have to say about that something.” I have no doubt, he will be just that sort of expert.
Yes, I would love to see Emma take her graduation walk and see one more battle in the batter’s box for him, but no matter what, I will never forget the journey that got them here. It is what makes me swell most with pride.
After all, it’s not about the game winning shot or score. It never has been for me. And I encourage each of you to focus not on what may not have been, but all the wonderful and courageous things that have been.
Brighter days are coming, rest assured. Until those days, though, be sure to look at your little athlete or your graduate and recall the same stories I have. Don’t take a minute for granted. Hug them and let them know the prize has never been the finish line, but rather the race itself.
(Contact James Beach via email at firstname.lastname@example.org)