It’s taken me some time to comment on coach Jeff Walz’s rant about participation trophies because … well, to be honest, I am (as coach says) “a loser.”
I have a “participation trophy” from youth football.
My team had a perfect season, a feat few athletes at any level can celebrate. Even the worst teams screw up and win a game a two. But not my football team. The Enslow Bulldogs. Perfection. Not a single win. Never even close.
I have the trophy to prove it.
I’m an epic loser. And I celebrate it every chance I get.
To say we were a rag-tag hot mess would be graciously overstating our prowess. We had twelve guys on our squad, the best of which wouldn’t have been able to sniff second string on any other team in our league.
We played ironman football. With only one extra guy, very few of us ever got a breather. Most played every second of every game—offense, defense, and special teams—in the merciless heat of a sun-scorched dustbowl of a field. We were all dead by halftime of every game, and by the third quarter, we were happy to see the other team’s third-string, against which we were almost competitive.
But we kept playing.
Because no matter the odds, that’s what we’d learned from our loser parents.
As West Virginians, we’re used to being last, to being pillaged and plundered and discarded. And we’re used to getting up the next day and fighting on, even though we know we’re going to get punched in the mouth. Again. It’s part of our DNA. I wish it weren’t.
I recently came across my trophy from that epic football season. Sitting in my basement alone, I held my plastic prize and sobbed. Just like a loser. A loser remembering boyhood … and a championship season.
You see, that year was not easy for me. It wasn’t for most of my teammates, either, but we didn’t talk about such things. We were kids. We showed up at practice every day and we beat up on each other until our legs gave out, all the while knowing that we were only preparing for our next weekly embarrassment.
Zero wins. Not a single game.
But that’s not why we got trophies.
We were so bad the league brass tried to cancel our season and scrap our team to “protect us.” However, the twelve of us met with our coaches and demanded that we keep playing. We weren’t going to quit, no matter how bad we were. For some of us, it was all we had.
My uncle, who had been like a second father to me, had recently died, leaving a gaping hole in my life. My sister had run away from home. My dad was either too exhausted from life to even speak to us or out of town searching for jobs when there were few to be found. One day, I came home from school to find Dad sitting on the porch covered in blood, having been brutally attacked by my teenage sister’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Looking back, that was just another day, a part of my boyhood normalcy. My childhood home was a tidal wave of manic-depression: at times insanely joyous; others, so deep in despair that I tiptoed through the house, terrified of stirring the ghosts that still haunt my soul.
The heartbreaker is that I had it far better than some of my teammates.
As boys, we couldn’t do anything about those fractured pieces of our world. Some opponents were just too big to comprehend, let alone tackle. But on the football field, we could at least get back up after every whistle and have another chance, no matter how slim the odds. And we did.
So they gave us trophies.
We never pretended to be league champs. None of us were so bold to imagine that a plastic figurine screwed to a cheap aluminum pedestal made us anything more than the losers we really were.
However, as a grown man, I now hold that participation trophy and remember something good in my life when things could have gone either way for most of us.
We got trophies because we were all fighting demons in our homes that were bigger than young boys could—or should—imagine: poverty, abuse, mental illness, alcoholism and addiction (before it was trendy), abandonment … the list goes on. We were a twelve-man roster of refugees fighting for our lives, and we made it—all of us. We’re now in our late forties and we’re still fighting, taking whatever the world throws at us, blow by blow … and THAT’S why I celebrate my participation trophy. I look back on that awkward, chubby kid that I’ve come to respect and realize what a champion he really was.
Over the years, I’ve seen many rants by untested souls like Mr. Walz and social media sycophants who applaud his sentiments and I feel bad for them. Oh, the wretched cry of someone caught in the nightmarish turmoil of a sporting pastime. How tragic. If it makes them feel better to blame my participation trophy for their personal frustrations and the world’s problems, then have at it.
I and my teammates have endured far worse.
I have the trophy to prove it.
I’ve played for and coached championship teams. I have those trophies as well. However, they don’t mean as much.
The trophy I’m most proud of was earned by a group of losers who kept fighting when life tried to knock them down, because their victory extends far beyond the limits of some chalk line. It reaches deep into eternity.
These days I love seeing young kids get participation trophies, because I know some of them are fighting—and winning—battles most of us will never realize. And if that trinket can someday remind a kid of how he kept playing through the pain, then it’s much more than a participation trophy.
I want to tell that kid (once again quoting Coach Walz), “You’re a loser” … because you know the sting of true loss, the big ones that matter, that leave scars no one else will ever know, and you stayed in the game.
Life didn’t beat you.
Here’s your trophy, kid.