Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.
— Henry Ford
There is a certain beauty in a Midwestern autumn afternoon. The light is golden and the air is brisk, but not yet bitter.
We cherish those days. This is not one of them. This day is leaden. The air damp, heavy and so cold it feels metallic. The sky is grey and the wind cuts like a knife. It is a good day to stay indoors.
In this soggy chill, nearly two dozen players lace up their cleats, stamp the ground, and rub their hands together to stay warm. The air is cool enough to frost your breath. They wear shorts and short sleeved shirts.
The grass is no longer the lush, vivid green of summer. It is crisp and brittle, brown with mud. Still, the home field feels like home. They know every dip in the field and every divot in the turf. They should. They made them.
They are the champions. They usually are. Their success so sure and expected, they make winning look easy — although surely it is not.
League stardom is won equally by talent and sheer determination. It is taking the field themselves, sans coaches, in the dewy early mornings of summer. It is jumping the fence to the field if no one has a key. Carrying a ball everywhere you go, and keeping your cleats in the car “just in case.”
It is showing up and working hard and picking up the pace through the blistering heat of late summer. It is going straight from school to a stadium, playing your heart out, doing homework on the bus and eating dinner at 10 p.m. It is keeping all the balls in the air — figuratively and literally — while never letting your grades or commitments slip.
That effort has gotten them where they are today. They have moved past regular season and the predictability of guaranteed games. They are in playoffs. Each game must be their best — or it will be their last. For the younger players this means until next year. For the seniors this may mean forever.
Through it all they have been led by capable coaches for certain, but I don’t think it can be argued the oldest players, the grizzled veterans in their senior year of high school, are the heart of a team. Some are captains and some simply have the grace and natural leadership skills to act as one. With or without the captain’s band, a certain type of player rises above.
They are the leaders who ran drills like taskmasters, but made time for humor and good fun. They are the go-to guys who worked long hours and then showed up for practice, never complaining, always with a smile.
They are captains who never singled out a weaker team member, but instead maneuvered the team strength to compensate. They are the mentors who looked out for wobbly freshman and newbies — never forgetting in their triumphs they had once been there themselves. They are the humble players who scored endlessly and yet always had a ready smile and encouragement for the JV player who barely touched the field.
Most of all they are the band of brothers who ceaselessly showed up, did their best, and looked out for themselves and everyone else. Each and every senior member of this team had every right to call himself a superstar. Others did. And yet, they didn’t. On and off the field they showed the value of teamwork, being the bigger man, and representing something bigger than you.
Throughout the season — and over many years — they demonstrated over and over again “the name on the front of the shirt is more important than the one on the back.”
Every winning streak has to end, and on this day, in the waning grey of an icy October evening, theirs did. The whistle blew, they had lost, and so a season, and for some, a lifetime of them, was done. For many the culmination of a passion and teamwork that first sprouted in pee-wee league had finally, abruptly, come to an end. The senior players looked stunned.
I watched them exhibit good sportsmanship right to the end. They gave handshakes, said “good game” and returned to the sidelines. They hugged each other, their coaches, and their parents too. There were a lot of red eyes that October afternoon.
To the captains, the seniors, the leaders both born and made, I say this: your season may have ended in the fading light of that cold autumn evening, but having gotten to know you through many seasons I feel confident in saying your future, I promise you, is bright.