Jul 102009

Some are grizzled enough to remember when Saturday afternoon during the slow season meant you would be treated to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat! This timeless line from that program is forever embedded into the consciousness of a nation of sports lovers.

agony-of-defeatAs much as any fan, I detest the agony of defeat. I hate it when my team loses. I especially hate it when they lose to their hated rivals. It hurts. Sometimes, that pain stays with you. I still smart over the two losses the Cowboys suffered at the hands of the Steelers in Super Bowls X and XIII. My mind still works on ways they could have won those games.

Conversely, Super Bowl XII versus the Broncos is one of the sweetest memories of my life. I watched that game with my very best childhood friends, and our guys dominated. It was pure ecstasy.

My first personal experience with the thrill of victory, as with many guys, came during my Little League Baseball career. I am a lefty, so, naturally, I was cast as a pitcher. I threw hard, but was often wild. The result was that only the very good batters had the nerve to stand in against me. The rest were just trying to figure out when they needed to hit the dirt. I played for the Athletics. Our city’s league was not sanctioned, I guess, for there was nothing beyond the city championship. If you were city champions, that was the pinnacle of achievement in Mineral Wells, Texas.

My second and final year on that team, we made it to the championship game. Our ace had pitched the semi-final. He would be playing short stop the night of the championship…and batting clean-up, as always. That meant I would be on the mound. Despite three hit batters, I pitched a shut out. I also delivered a home run in the first inning. It was a glorious night. We were city champions, and I was a hero. That was the sweetest thing: the thrill of victory.

Later that Fall, playing linebacker and returning punts and kickoffs for the Hornets, I found myself on a football team contending for the Pop Warner city championship. What a year I was having! Ah, but this game was so different from the baseball experience. We were rolled by the team with the best halfback in the city. I have no idea how many yards he gained, but I know he broke several long runs right over me. He seemed like the result of some mad scientist’s mixture of Jim Brown and Gale Sayers. We lost…big!

I cried that night. I lay in my bed and the hot tears of humiliation and anger stung my cheeks.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would come to realize that the agony of losing is just as important and just as meaningful to one’s life as the thrill of victory. In fact, if you didn’t have the one, you wouldn’t have the other. If all you ever did was win, it would surely lose its thrill. Just note how fat and sassy – and nit-picky – fans of dynasty teams become during their team’s dynasty. They moan and bitch about every little thing. Then, as soon as the inevitable cycle occurs, when their team is no longer the best, they become sentimental and review “the good old days” through their rose-tinted beer steins.

Winning all the time would mean that you are probably out of your league. Your competition isn’t up to par. So, your victories are cheapened. It would be like you were the smartest kid in the remedial class.  No one, not even the very best, win all the time. Not Federer, not Tiger, not the Yankees, not the Steelers…not (sniff) even the Cowboys.

Even for champion-caliber teams and individuals, there is the bitter taste of what my dad used to call, “almost, nearly, but not quite hardly.”

The person who can deal with defeat as well as he handles victory is a well-rounded, complete individual. If you can lose and not be crushed or win and not be vain, you are the kind of person every person ought to be. If you can hate losing, but still give a nod to the victor, if you can defeat your opponent and accept the accolades with real grace (and not false humility), then you are living and learning the life lessons the sports arena is best designed to teach.

This brings to mind one of my favorite poems by one of the world’s great poets. I give you IF, by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Someone said, “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” We all, intuitively, know better. Winning and losing does matter. Each is a possible outcome. One is sweet; the other bitter. But, as another has noted, “Losing isn’t fatal and victory isn’t final.”

So, play to win…but win or lose, your life is richer because you dared, because you cared, because you were there. You experienced it. You lived it.

You really lived.