In the midst of what should have been a time of celebration I experienced some confusing reactions that surprised me. 

Ever have something not work out the way you thought it would? Ever work really hard to get to a particular point and once you got there it wasn’t what you thought it was going to be? Ever realize that your motivations, your feelings, your approach weren’t really shared by your group? I did and I remember all those things when I look at what should be a symbol of accomplishment, a symbol of pride; my district champions t-shirt.

Maye it’s the Irish in me or the pessimist or the depressant talking but I don’t have good feelings when I look at this t-shirt. What I remember is backing into the championship of our district, losing the last game of the regular season and making that long bus ride back home thinking all the way that the game was ours to win if we had just played our normal, regular game. Not something fantastic, not some Herculean or Beamon effort, no, none of that was required. Just go out and play our game and the win would have been ours.

I don’t recall thinking about the consequences of our poor play that night as I played the game, I just remember wondering what in the heck was happening. This was not us. This was not the way we played football. And yet, we couldn’t seem to get things together. We couldn’t seem to get out of our own way. We lost by a touchdown or so. After the game as I showered I realized that this was it for me and football. I didn’t have plans to try and play in college. Football was over. It was like dealing with the death of a friend. The resurrection came about the time we pulled into the high school parking lot. North Platte had lost their last game also. They were #2 in our district and by virtue of our victory over them, we were going to the state tournament.

At first I was as shocked as I would have been seeing my friend get up out of the hole, dust himself off and say, “What? You thought I was done for? I ain’t done for!” I didn’t quite know how to react. I’m sure the coach had some directions about practice for the state playoffs but I listened in a daze. The elation really didn’t hit me until I pulled up to my girlfriend’s house and it hit me like a hammer. We were going to the playoffs! I burst into her family’s house and announced the good news. She was happy, her mom was happy, her father, not so much. His reaction was subdued, almost glum. “You’ll play Westside. They’re really good. I think they’re rated nationally. They’ve got a really good team. Congratulations.” I remember being a little dumbfounded. I mean, here I was, the poster child for “just happy to be here” and now it sounded like maybe I shouldn’t be so happy? I didn’t care. Overmatched or not, my old friend was alive again and we would fight another day. I passed over his comments with a shrug but he wasn’t the first adult whose reaction I couldn’t understand. The next one was our coach.

I’ve been accused, and rightfully so although many years later and by my dad (there’s another story for another day), of being a hard-ass. I love hard work and I love a challenge. I’m stupid like that I guess. After coming down out of the euphoria of our team, our season just being alive again I started mulling over what it would take to compete against this nationally-rated team. (My girlfriend’s dad was right, they were like 13th in the country or something according to USA Today) If my memory is correct (and that’s a stretch) we practiced the next day, a Saturday. By that time I was ready to get to work, I was serious. Except our coach didn’t seem to be.

To be fair to him some of the parents showed up with balloons and things at the end of our practice to congratulate us on our state tournament berth. I know they meant well but I don’t think I was the only guy who sort of wondered what in the heck they were doing at our practice. It was like an uninvited guest showing up at the regular meeting of the He-Man Woman Haters Club. It just didn’t fit, but back to our coach. They gave him some cap with two bills and some slogan about “which way did they go?” on it and encouraged him to run wind sprints with us. I imagine he was trying to humor them and show his appreciation for them coming out but he did it. I remember thinking “What in the world is going on here? Don’t they understand we have work to do? Don’t they understand this is serious business and we have a monumental task in front us?” again the hard-ass coming out in me. It wasn’t until later in the week that I was dealt another blow, this time from some guys on the team.

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced getting information you would have been better off without but around Wednesday or Thursday I learned that some of my teammates had made comments indicating they weren’t very happy that we were in the playoffs. Seems they thought we didn’t belong and that we were no match for Westside. The sentiment was that they didn’t want to travel to Omaha for a beating. The rumor came through my girlfriend who had talked to someone else who had supposedly heard it from them. The source wasn’t clear and neither were the comments but I found myself looking suspiciously at guys during practice to see if their heart didn’t seem to be in it. Again, I felt I was serious about actually going out and winning the game. I just wasn’t sure that everyone felt the same.

All of this stuff came at a time when you would have thought I would have been charged up, pumped that our team was finally going to the state tournament for the first time in years but I found myself struggling to be excited about it. It seemed like everyone around me was finding ways to bring me down and I felt alone like someone shouting in a vacuum, “Hey! This is really cool! We’re going to the playoffs!” and no one was listening.

The outcome of the game was, I suppose, what most people expected. Westside was very good. We were overmatched but we played hard. I think the final score was 35-0 or something like that. We were never really in the game. One of our first plays from scrimmage resulted in an interception on a pass over the middle that was intended for me. The ball was high, I went up for it and got absolutely up-ended by one defensive back while the linebacker cut in front of me and intercepted the ball. Things went downhill from there.

If we had any consolation it may have been that Westside marched through the playoffs in the same fashion that year. No one scored any points against them and they scored 34 and 35 respectively on the way to the state championship. Several of their players went on to Division 1 schools after high school. Two or three of our players played at NAIA schools by comparison.

For a long time I didn’t wear my District Champions t-shirt with any pride. I saw it as a symbol of a missed opportunity, a chance that we just didn’t make the most of at the time. The records will show that we ended the year with two straight losses. I imagine those that might examine that season from so long ago could conclude that we didn’t belong in the playoffs. I don’t feel that way even though I know we were no match for a team like Westside.

As is so often the case with me personally, I don’t much care what others think. Appearances are just that, appearances. I’ve come to cherish the t-shirt I still hold onto although it’s faded like the memories it represents (some good and some not so good). It’s also a reminder of the lessons I learned. We all don’t come at things the same way and that’s okay. We all aren’t always on the same page even though we’re on the same team. And sometimes we need to enjoy things while they’re happening and cherish the moments that we will certainly experience only once.

Have you ever felt out of sync with those around you or those on your team? How did you handle it? What did you tell yourself about what you were experiencing? How have you reconciled the memory of it, or have you? I’d like to hear your story.



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