Somebody, somewhere, was once quoted as saying "football doesn't build character - it reveals it." Well, back when I was coaching, I thought that was a pretty nifty little thing to include with all the other clichés that coaches throw out there. Things like "when the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Those, and other great clichés, motivate kids not only to get pumped up for a big game; sometimes they serve simply to help kids "finish the drill" on an unbearably hot day.
As I aged, though, I came to realize that the pressure of football just doesn't even come close to mimicking the pressure ordinary folk face in everyday life. If you don't get the first down, just punt the ball, play defense, and try again next time. What's the worst thing that can happen?
Well, you could lose the game. But guess what? And please, football fans, forgive this outright blasphemy...
If you lose the game, it's not the end of the world. It's football. It's a... game!
Be that as it may, there are those among us who live and die with winning and losing...games. Many believe that football, and other team sports, serve to teach valuable lessons while mimicking the pressures of real, everyday life in a sort of controlled microcosm.
That prompts the philosophical side of me to talk about the macabre writings of Milledgeville's great Flannery O'Connor. A mentor of mine out at Walla Walla's Whitman College, John Desmond, says that O'Connor wrote on "the anagogical level." In his own book, "Risen Sons: The Writings of Flannery O'Connor," Desmond says that there are several and different levels of meaning in each of O'Connor's short stories. Each level of meaning holds a different truth in the eye of the beholder; it all depends upon the level the observer is coming from.
For example, a neophyte participating for the first time in a blocking drill against an experienced player might think of that drill as the most pressure one could ever face. The experienced player, however, would see the same drill as a light workout. The coach conducting the drill, depending on his age and the grade level at which the coaching was taking place, might feel several things: a sense of concern that the green player not get hurt or that the veteran player not suffer an injury which could hurt the team's chances down the road or possibly how to pay all the bills this month.
Truthfully, I never thought I could get along without coaching. My baseball hall of fame uncle, retired Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, once told me how amazed was he that people actually paid him to watch a game he loved and to talk about it. He always thought of his perch in the press box as "the best seat in the house."
And it was free, to boot!
Well, that's the way I felt about coaching, no matter which sport happened to be in season. Walking the sideline on a football field or pacing the baseline on a basketball court or watching a baseball game unfold from the dugout, I would occasionally look up into the stands and wonder what it was like to have to pay to get into a game and to watch it from a distance.
Somebody else once said that life is what happens while we're making plans. That person was pretty much at least as smart, if not smarter, than the person who said football reveals character.
The day dawned when, in order to let our children attend any college they wished, I had to give up coaching and take on a second fulltime job. My lovely wife took on a part-time job, as well, and we ended up with a Kansas Jayhawk, a Clemson Tiger and an Indiana Hoosier.
It's dizzying, sometimes, contemplating the water that's gone under the bridge in those 10 years since we started that routine back in August of 1997.
And, in case you're wondering, it took three full years before I could go to any high school football game without physically trembling from the excitement a coach feels just before kickoff. And even though I've come round to realizing that there is a life outside coaching, there's a huge vacuum inside that nothing else can fill, and it's not hard for me to understand why legendary high school basketball coach Ron Bradley keeps on keeping on even after all these years.
That, friends, brings me round, finally, to the point of today's ramble. Games, no matter how tangible and valuable the lessons they teach, just can't match the strain and stress of life in our pressure-packed society.
Life proceeds apace. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. Bad things happen to good people, and heartache and hardship befall everyone.
But on the other hand, every cloud has a silver lining.
And so it is that life and the way we live it - not the games people play - reveals true character for all to see.
There are among us people who have suffered the most egregious of losses: they've lost a child.
Even the most callous of beings surely must realize that parents aren't supposed to outlive their children. And no matter how big the void when a parent or spouse dies, there can be no bigger hurt than the loss a parent feels when a child is lost.
And yet, from the depths of despair and from the darkest of nights which cover us, some brave few rise to set shining examples for the rest of us.
The Eddie Cain and Ken Malcom families, joined together by the tragic loss of children, recently stepped forward to make life better for generations to come. The YMCA Outdoor Center Project will feature a soccer field named for Chase Cain, a pretty great kid who played soccer for Eastside High. And ground has also been broken for the Mary Beth Malcom Playground, named in memory of the young daughter of Covington Police officer and longtime "Fuzz Run" organizer, Ken Malcom.
I guess because of my coaching background I know the daddies of those kids better than I know their wives. You'll have to go a long, long way to find better men than Eddie Cain and Ken Malcom. Talk about character revealed. In the darkness of loss, these folks have stepped up to preserve the memory of their children in a way which will enrich the lives of countless others.
More recently than those losses, though, is the loss of an infant daughter by one of my former middle school basketball players. David Evans and his wife, Allison, lost their little girl due to a sudden and unexpected complication. Their loss touched my wife and me in a special way, as we experienced three miscarriages along the way to having our three children.
David and Allison have stepped forward and established a fund in memory of their daughter to help hospitals everywhere establish or expand perinatal bereavement support to parents who suffer such loss. The Anna Jo Evans Memorial Fund for Perinatal Bereavement Support is handled through the Newton Federal Bank, to which donations can be made to help assuage the bereavement of others.
In times like these I'm humbled just to know people like the Cains, the Malcoms, and the Evans. The trials of life and the dark night of despair reveal again the character of those who are somehow able to transcend personal tragedy and transform it into a healing balm others.
If you ever pondered those old coaching clichés, wondering of their validity, these folks surely provide the proof in the pudding. When the going gets tough, the tough do - in fact - get going.
Somehow, when you think it impossible, you find that every cloud does, indeed, have a silver lining. And, for me at least, the example set by these folks gives me the courage to simply finish the drill.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.