Tom Petty said even the losers get lucky sometimes. That may be true, but today I have the feeling that sometimes the luck is in the loss.
I just got home from my kid’s football game with a renewed perspective of him and of myself and, as corny as it sounds, maybe of life. Is this why we value sports so highly in America? Are we in it for the analogies? Probably not, but there’s some poetry there if you look for it.
My kid’s 7th grade football team has 14 players total. That means even if everyone shows up, most of them will play for almost every down of the game, offense and defense. About an hour and a half, with an 8 minute timeout in the middle. In two whole games my kid has only been on the sidelines for one play.
The team they played today had 33 players. I counted 33 very large 7th graders. I’m not sure where they found these kids, but I’m not certain that some of them would be asked for ID if they tried to order a beer. I recognized the head coach (one of the seven coaches on their staff!) from baseball this summer. His baseball team is stacked pretty much the same way. Even though it’s a rec league, he somehow has a whole dugout of very large, very talented players who completely dominate the league. He’s a really high energy, ultra-competitive coach. That's euphemism for he is a super-duper fucking prick. He screams at his players, screams at the players on the other team, and is certainly there to win... which he does. A lot. And by a wide margin. Like, 27-3 on the baseball field and 44-0 on the football field. Clearly, this is a man who takes winning, and being a winner, seriously. Not a person with even a trace of pity for the underdog. He’s the antagonist from every John Hughes movie rolled into one middle-aged man with a weak chin. He tries to hide the weak chin with a goatee, but I am not fooled, sir.
So while the opposing team rotated their very large players in and out of the game with each play - before any of them had a chance to even breathe hard - our guys were out there every play, taking crazy-hard hits, some of them quite literally being tossed around like rag dolls, then picking themselves up to take the line for more punishment, and I’m assuming, praying for a forfeit. It was an absolute slaughter. You’ve never seen anything this brutal.
I sat under a big grey Kansas sky, on my quilt in the grass with my shoes off, drinking fizzy water while the new baby kicked me in the bladder. I listened to the other mothers yelling at their sons to “get mad and hurt someone!” I watched my oldest kid, my gentlest, most sensitive child for sure, taking hit after hard hit, then standing up, limping in a circle for a moment before he returned to the line to lower his body and head and take another from a kid who outweighed him by twenty pounds. I felt very far removed from it all. And I wondered What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Us?
Toward the end of the second quarter, just before half time, I saw a noticeable droop in his posture as his team began to heave out a collective sigh of degradation and defeat. The score was 30-0. I’ve seen this happen in him plenty. I’m his mom. I know him better than anyone. I know that once his spirit starts to sag like that, a rebound is hours away.
After halftime, eight minutes later, he was back on the field and I was prepared for what I knew was coming: a long second half of him half-heartedly trying to look like he’s trying, but really just wishing he was anywhere else.
I, his mother, the one who knows him better than anyone, was wrong. Dead wrong. He threw himself back on the line like... a man. When I say like a man, I mean like a mountain man fighting a bear. He held that line like he was made of stone, fought back the big kids from the other team, took some insane hits that sounded concussive in nature. He fought and limped and fought and limped and fought. Down to the last minute, even though winning was a hopeless prospect with a score of 44-0... he fought. My eyes welled with pride at the beauty and futility of it, and my ex-husband’s voice had a quiver when I asked him whose child that is and he said, that’s our boy.
Outmanned, outgunned, outmatched, with no hope of doing anything more than holding your own... isn’t it nice to know that something in the human condition stops us from caving?
Now I’m thinking about that weak-chinned coach and his furious need to win. I’m thinking about his poor wife, if he’s managed to hang on to one who doesn’t mind him screaming at 12 year olds. She might never have the chance to see her kid shining through as a loser. This is going to sound terrible, but it was an incredible moment for me, as his mother, to watch him getting his ass kicked so severely, and standing back up to do it again. That’s my loser!
Through the second half, I listened to the other mothers, still yelling at their kids to “get mad and hurt someone.” Although this is something that would never even be a thought in my head, let alone something that comes out of my mouth at 180 decibels, I felt a little more connected to them. Those are their losers, too. And however we go about it, we are there to support their effort. Because it’s not futile. It’s not for nothing, even when the final score pretty much says: well, that was for nothing.
My son walked off the field drenched in sweat, covered in welts that will be bruises by evening, and wondering if he does, in fact, have a concussion. He was near tears when he told his dad and me about how hard the hits really were, about how hard it was to brace himself for what he knew was going to hurt like hell. But he did it. About fifty times in 90 minutes. It wasn’t for nothing. This might be the first time in his life that he sees what a badass he truly is.
And that, my friends, is a lucky loser.