Today, I am thankful for sports.
Generally, sports are a kind of an afterthought in my life. I’ve never been too terribly athletic, and I’ve spent much of my life very overweight. It also doesn’t help that I have two rolling ankles. To some extent, these are “excuses” for avoiding sports, but this is besides the point. Or at least, I would like to think that it is.
For those of you wondering where I am going with this, I played tennis today. Which, if I remember correctly, is the first recreational athletic event I’ve done this semester, if not this entire year. Exercise for me is usually a personal thing. I have my track pants, my music, and my shirt that is always just a bit too tight. When I want to burn calories, I hit the gym. It’s just me, my flabby stomach, and the music that keeps me going.
The gym has always been a funny place to me, kind of like some mad sociologist’s experiment. Have you ever noticed how no one in the gym ever talks to one another, no matter how close together they might be? It’s just an exercise in ignoring people for half an hour. But this is besides the point. This is about tennis, right?
There’s something invigorating about playing a sport with others. Sports often require the interaction and cooperation of multiple individuals. While “winning”, whatever that is, tends to be the common goal, the greater factor is the manner in which teammates interact with one another. Even in sports where no teams are involved, and selfish victory is the prize, participants must play a complementing strategy in order to best their opponent.
Somewhere in-between the throwing of an object back and forth, I caught a glimpse of the beauty that so many find in sports. In the community that comes from that. And it was refreshing. Relaxing. Despite how I will never be drafted into any kind of sport, ever, I fully intend to go back to sports recreationally. To tennis. To volleyball. To basketball. And other things that would have me “plugged in” with others.
For those of you who don’t know, I work in the alumni relations department of my school. This is a fancy way of saying that I am a telemarketer who calls alumni and asks them for even more money than what they have already offered to the school I currently attend.
Yes, I am that person.
Anyway, I love talking to alumni, because alumni are interesting. For reasons not altogether surprising to me, I tend to learn more from my elders than I do from my peers. Not all the time, just ninety-nine percent of it.
Last night, I was talking to Coach Ayton. Coach Ayton walked across the campus that I walk across about forty years ago. Which is completely incomprehensible to me. That said, he has the word “Coach” in his title because he has been leading young men and women for nearly forty years. Which is, twice as long as I have been alive. When I asked him how on Earth he found the motivation to not quit his job after so many years, he told me a story.
About ten years ago, Coach Ayton said, there was this young man on the team who yelled all sorts of words at him, the kind of words that tend to get people in trouble, or give movies R-ratings. And the Coach told this young man that he was off the team. Instantly, the young man begged the Coach for a second chance, which the Coach did after some thinking. Later that week, the Coach met with the student, and told him that he could come back on one condition. Without explaining the condition, the Coach drove this young man twelve miles outside of town, and told him to run all twelve miles back to the school. Before he sent the young man on his way, the Coach went to the trunk of car and pulled out a cow tongue that he had bought from the local butcher. He told the young man that if he could carry that tongue back to the school, that he would let him back on the team. The young man complied. Twelve miles and some time later, the weary student had made it back to campus, cow tongue in hand. “I want to save this, Coach,” the young man said. When the Coach asked why, the young man said, “Because you taught me how to hold my tongue. And I don’t ever want to forget that.” So, Coach Ayton told me, the young man pickled the cow tongue, and the young man, who is not quite so young now, has the jar sitting on his bookshelf to this very day.
That, Coach Ayton told me, was the reason that he gets up every morning. Because he’s not really coaching. He’s changing people’s lives. And this, I think, is the true power that lies within sports. There’s a lot more going on in-between the lines than a ball being passed back and forth. It isn’t so much about the game itself as it is about commitment. As it is about perseverance. Yes, it is about the sort of thing that companies exploit to sell energy drinks. But it’s also a little more than that.
I can’t even imagine running twelve miles to stay on a team, much less holding a cow tongue while doing so! I probably would have thrown in the towel at fifty yards, cow tongue or not. And it is for this, that I am thankful for sports, and its ability to make us go above and beyond where we would normally go. Because, every so often, we need that push. I know I do.
Today, I am thankful for sports. For Coach Payton. For cow tongues. What, or whom, are you thankful for today?