Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Four Little Words I'm Starting To Hate

The sun was setting, the hour golden. Helmeted players stretched and warmed up on the field as the bleachers became crowded with spectators. The crisp air was filled with the sounds of laughter as good-natured ribbing and banter was tossed back and forth in the stands. Anticipation rose as the seconds ticked off of the clock. It was almost time.

A semi-final game in the CYO City Championships was about to begin. The opponents were ready. They knew each other well. They had seen each other's moves and had good ideas about what to expect. They were nervous and anxious. This was it. The winner would move on to the championship game. The losers would be thrown in the lion's den.

Okay. Not really. It was all true right up until that last line. Just had to make sure you were running on all cylinders. Heh.

As you may have gathered, James had a ball game. It was special because it was a semi-finals game. His team has been here in past seasons. Not that that makes it any less special, because post-season games are always special--and not a given. We tried to make that point clear. But it was a little more anticipated because of the opponent: the other team from our own church.

Our church has two 5th grade teams. They have the numbers for one, obviously, but the powers that be--I don't know who makes those decisions, although I don't think it's the Pope, that seems a little too micromanagment, ya know?--decided that rather than one big team with a deep bench, they'd rather have two teams so that all the boys would get plenty of chances to play. As parents, we all appreciate that idea, and the boys seem to like it too. So we have a 5th grade blue team and a 5th grade white team. And Monday night, they faced off under the lights to try to make it to the City Championships.

These boys, in the last three years have all been on each other's teams, as the teams change from year to year. Two years ago, the team my son was not on went on to the championship game and lost. Last year, my son's team went to the championship game and lost. This year, it was brother against brother, friend against friend to even get to the championship game. Both teams wanted it. Bad.

The great thing? The coaches really emphasized character and sportsmanship all season and especially for this game. The boys all really wanted to win, but they knew that there was great pride in reaching the semi-final. They had worked hard. They were proud of themselves. They also knew that some of their friends would be going home sad at the end of the night.

It was a fun game. It was fun to be able to root for both sides--cheer on boys that we've known for several years as we watched them make great plays. It was nice to be able to pat their parents on the back or give thumbs up in the stands. It was fun to joke about having a rumble in the parking lot after the game.

Don't get me wrong, it was intense, as each side wanted victory, but it was nice to know that at the end of the evening, there wouldn't be any sour grapes. It was nice to know that a victory would be celebrated by both sides, even when tempered with a tinge of sadness for friends that wouldn't be moving on. It was hilarious to watch the cheerleaders try to figure out exactly who they were rooting for and whether or not they should do an offense or defense cheer and then watching them give up and just do simple "blue and white" and "Royals" cheers.

It was not so fun walking my heartbroken son to the parking lot. It was not so fun watching him try and hold himself together as he congratulated his friends on the other team. It sucks to lose, no matter who you are losing to. It was not so fun to spew forth worthless platitudes to try to make him feel better.

For three years, I have been saying four little words that are starting to make me want to stick a fork in my eardrums so that I won't have to hear myself say them anymore. They are the words that every Cub fan knows. They are words that have a hint of hope in them. They are always said with your chin up and maybe a quiver on your lips, but definitely with a fire in your belly.

As we sat in the chilly car, waiting for the traffic to move in the parking lot, I turned in my seat and looked at my son and said those words: There's always next year.

He sniffed and nodded. He stared silently out the window as we drove. We turned on the radio and tried to find music he would like, to cheer him up. It was a quiet 40 minute drive home. But by the time we had pulled in the driveway, my beautiful boy had taken those words to heart.

"Next year it'll be us. Next year we'll have our turn. For now, I don't have to rush to get to practice. I'll have time to get my homework done. I'll get my weekends back! And dad, do you think that maybe on Saturday we can go and watch the white team in the championship game? I think I'd like to see it."

It may be next year--or years beyond-- for my son's team to get to the big game and win it. But I'm mightily glad I don't have to wait until next year to see what a wonderful, pragmatic, and incredibly smart young man he's growing into.

Well played, my boy. You are a winner.

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