The night was a little colder than I expected.
It felt like a football game from when I was kid. Games where families would huddle under a blanket, or if you were older and too cool to huddle with your family, you might succumb to the frigid temperatures and crowd in closer with your best group of friends. If you were really lucky, you might even find yourself sharing a blanket with a girl you had been awkwardly pursuing for the last few weeks. It felt like one of those games we just don’t seem to have in Arizona anymore.
I enjoyed the opportunity to be at a high school near where my wife and I had lived almost a decade earlier. The field where the game was played was right across the highway from a golf course my friends and I had played dozens of times. It felt a little like going home.
Until we got there.
It’s amazing how much growth can occur in nine years. The traffic that clogs the Hunt Highway is endless. Even when we were attempting to get back on the main thoroughfare at the game’s conclusion, it was so busy we had to stare death in the face to try and shoot a gap between oncoming vehicles. It felt nothing like the isolated little community I remembered from so many years before. It made me a little sad.
But as we pulled into the parking lot of Poston Butte High School, my excitement was building. We had been to the amazing comeback game Thatcher had played in the week before. Could they do it again? Either way, my wife and I and my two boys would be there to see it.
It was incredible to see how much support a community Thatcher’s size could produce for a game in the greater Phoenix area on a Monday night. We filled the visitor’s stands to overflowing a full hour before kickoff. By the time the opening whistle sounded, Thatcher fans not only filled the entire visiting section of the stadium, we had laid claim to half of the home grandstand as well. The excitement was palpable, the expectations overflowing.
And then the game started.
It’s hard to describe the disappointment that can fill your soul when you realize your overmatched. I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen for every person there at the same time. But at some point, the realization dawned on every Thatcher player and every Thatcher fan. What made this situation even more difficult to accept was that our team had beaten this team earlier in the season. I wasn’t at that game. But from what I saw last night, I’m guessing we didn’t get to see all that their offense was capable of in the previous contest.
As I sat there watching touchdown after touchdown being scored by the opposition, it made me wonder which would have been more difficult to swallow. The week before, Thatcher easily could have lost on the last play of the game-inches short of a victory. Had that been the case, every mistake, every missed call by the officials, every if only… would have been analyzed and picked apart. It would have been a very tough loss to accept. It also would have robbed the boys of that team a defining moment of victory that they had earned with selfless play and feisty resolve. I’m glad they didn’t lose that game. Even if it meant experiencing what they did last night.
But that epiphany didn’t make watching what was happning in front of me any easier.
Thatcher has/had a good team. Once they got calmed down at halftime, they came out and showed that they have an offense that can go toe to toe with any defense in the division. But Yuma Catholic’s offense was…for lack of a better phrase, a thing of beauty and in a class all its own. I would have been able to appreciate it more had I not been supporting the boys getting pummeled by it, but it was impossible not to appreciate all that they brought to the table. The first red flags of danger that night went up as we were walking to the stands to take our seats. Yuma Catholic’s quarterback was warming up and it was…Wow!!! He could throw the ball. As the game wore on, he proved that what we had seen in warm ups was no fluke. Sadly, our team could not produce a single stop against their starters the entire night.
Now maybe on a different day with more opportunity to plan, Thatcher could have produced a better result. Maybe they could have even pulled off a win. Who knows? But on this night, the better team won, and we were not the better team.
The scene after the game is one that has played out on thousands of football fields hundreds of thousands of times. But each instance is like a snowflake. No two endings of a season are exactly the same. This was one of the better ones.
The fans respectfully took their place on the track as they waited for the coaches to release their team. The underclassmen lined up near the sideline while the seniors huddled at mid-field with the coaching staff. After a moment was shared that will forever belong to only those few, each coach took the opportunity to hug and cry with each of their seniors before they let them go to be greeted individually by their underclassman teammates. From my viewpoint in the stands, it was a catch-in-the-throat moment.
Right then was not the time for evaluation. Those young men had left everything they had on the field and come up short. It was a time for consolation and a time for expressions of pride in our boys, because that’s what they have come to be. Our boys. Whether they are actually our sons or not. One of the players is our home teacher. I felt for him. He’ll get another shot next year, but in the moment, that didn’t make last night any easier.
However, now that everyone has had a chance to sleep on it, it’s time for the introspection to begin.
I’m sure over the next few weeks we’ll hear and engage in discussions about how unfair the public vs. private school dynamic of sports in Arizona is. We’ll decry the inherent unfairness of Yuma Catholic’s ability to recruit players. We’ll pat our boys on the back and try to boost them up by reassuring them that they were the state champs of the public schools. (An argument that would hold more water if Round Valley weren’t still part of the equation in the championship game, but…details, details.) In short, we’ll try and reassure ourselves that if all things were fair, the outcome would have been different.
But if these are the only lessons we take from this, we’ll be missing a golden opportunity for these boys and for ourselves.
In truth, life is never fair. At the end of the day, regardless of how well we like the system we’re in or not, it’s the system we have. And in that system, we had to play Yuma Catholic. And last night, Yuma Catholic was better than us…by a long shot.
But that’s okay. Because in life, we’re always going to come up against someone who is just better than we are. At anything we ever try to do. It just is. Failure is part of this gig we call life. It’s what we do with failure that matters.
The cold, hard fact is; some days, your absolute best effort will not be enough. And sometimes, no matter how hard you work, your best effort will never be enough. I don’t tend to get overly religious on this blog very often, but doesn’t that sound familiar?
To my mind, there is no better way to teach the atonement to youth than by capitalizing on those moments of failure like last night. Anyone can explain concepts and anyone can draw up diagrams all day long. But last night, those boys felt pain. They understood what it meant to give it their all for four months and still get run over. To achieve victory, they would have needed help. And a lot of it.
But as I stood in the stands, the chill in the air making me shiver just a bit, I looked at those boys with their heads down as they hugged their team mates, their friends and their families. In a short amount of time, whether it be a matter of months or a matter of years, some of those boys will be missionaries. And they’ll be better missionaries because they not only know what it means to succeed, but they’ll also know what it means to fail. And people who fail are the ones willing to listen to a message of hope.
And when those days come, and in the years and years of life that will follow, football won’t matter a whole lot. At least not until it is their own son playing, and then once again, they’ll get to experience that magical moment that can only be felt on an evening when there is a chill in the air and the lights on the field can be seen for miles. And on that night, they’ll either celebrate a thrilling victory or they’ll commiserate with a boy experiencing the agony of a crushing defeat. But if it is the outcome of defeat, they’ll also know that tomorrow, in the ashes of broken dreams, a valuable lesson will be waiting for everyone.