Sports is—or can be—one of life’s greatest teachers. It provides important, lasting lessons for anyone willing to pay reasonably good attention and wise enough to heed its feedback. But as all coaches and parents know, this is easier said (or written) than done.
As I write this, the Super Bowl concluded about 10 hours ago. I was in the enviable position of not caring very much who won, so I wasn’t too invested in the outcome. I was rooting a bit for the Atlanta Falcons because (a) I possess a very fleeting, distant connection to one of that team’s players, and (b) ever since the unbelievably lucky outcome of Super Bowl 49 (or “XLIX” for the purists in the readership) I have been fairly certain that the only way to account for the Patriots’ good fortune in that game was that coach Bill Belichick, owner Robert Kraft, and/or quarterback Tom Brady paid a pre-game visit to the infamous crossroad near the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi to execute a deal with the devil. Still, I wasn’t living and dying with each play. Our youngest, Luke, watched the game with me and likewise pulled for the Falcons.
As the game proceeded Luke became more and more animated. He screamed for joy each time the Patriots dropped a pass or the Falcons earned a first down. By the end of the first quarter I could see that he was “all in” for the guys in black and red. By half-way through the second quarter it appeared his allegiance would be rewarded with a big victory.
The Falcons had scored on a five yard run and on a gorgeous 19-yard pass to their tight end. Their defense had completely stymied the Patriots’ well-rounded, clever offense. With a little over two minutes to go in the half, however, the Patriots methodically drove the ball down the field and threatened to score. At that point Brady did something very un-Brady-like, however, zipping a short pass over the middle which was intercepted by a Falcons’ cornerback.
The cornerback raced down the sideline with the ball, easily dismissing Brady’s futile, diving attempt at a tackle, and scored another Atlanta touchdown, making the score an improbable 21-0. Luke was ecstatic and, truth be told, I was pleased as well. Halfway through the third quarter the Falcons scored on another pass and led 28-3. Luke—young, impressionable, mercurial, callow boy—thought the game was over and wanted the celebration to begin. I knew better.
“It looks good, Luke, but trust me: this isn’t over. There’s a lot of time left and the Falcons defense has been on the field A LOT. Look at the difference in time of possession and the number of plays—they’re getting really tired and they’re going to slow down. If the Falcons make a few mental and physical mistakes, and if the Patriots get a few breaks and play smart, it’s possible they could come back. Not likely. But possible.”
Well, score one for Obi-Wan-Dadobi. That’s precisely what happened. Poor clock management and some highly questionable play calling by the Falcons + perfect offensive and defensive execution by the Patriots = historic comeback victory (or “epic choke job” for the more cynical and negative crowd). Luke was flabbergasted and confused. He has not yet seen enough of these situations (in sporting events OR in daily life) to comprehend how they can happen, nor is he (yet) mature enough to learn from them without lots and lots of guidance. He repeated a flurry of “how?” and “why?” questions as we sat together later in his bedroom. I reminded him of the end of the Purdue-Maryland basketball game the day before (a game where I DID have more than a passing interest, Purdue being my alma mater and all….). Purdue was up by a point with three seconds left. Maryland threw a long in-bounds pass that was intercepted by a Purdue player—game over—right?! Wrong. In his haste, the Purdue player caught the ball and began walking forward in celebration, temporarily forgetting about this thorny little violation in basketball called “traveling.” The referee properly blew his whistle and Maryland had one more shot to win the game, simply because an opposing player had lost concentration and made a tremendously silly and avoidable mental error. (Maryland ended up missing a last second 3-point shot.)
“Luke, you can learn so much about life through sports, I’m tellin’ ya. The Falcons will be rehashing for a long time some of the mental and tactical mistakes they made tonight, I’m sure. But here’s a bigger issue: How resilient are they? Are they strong enough, in time, to pick themselves up and get back to the playoffs and maybe another Super Bowl? That would tell you a LOT about their coaches and players. And the Patriots—what did they show you? They never gave up, even when it looked pretty hopeless. You have to play hard—and play smart—until the final horn or buzzer or gun or whatever goes off. There are tons of other lessons, too, and we’ll be talking about some of those, but now it’s time for bed. Good night. I love you.”
“G’night. Love you, too.”
Now to search the tabloids for reports and photos of the Patriots’ brain trust having made a return visit to the Mississippi delta region….