Monday, February 03, 2014
When I begin to lose faith in youth sports witnessing the absurd competiveness, the overbearing parents, the “professional” emphasis that singles out better players at the expense of others, and the lack of joy in play, I wonder if we can ever find that core experience that translates into fun for all young players. Then a story crops up that renews my faith in the real reasons we play and support youth sports. Last month, an amazing feat was achieved by a high school basketball player in North Carolina, but that wasn’t the complete story. In a richly nuanced and powerfully emotional chain of events, a boy and his team made a strong statement about the power of youth sports to change lives without any of the trappings of ambition, self-promotion and parental intervention.
Josh Thompson, the coach of Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in North Carolina, decided to have a “Dedication Game” as they met their rival Mount Airy. He brought an old basketball to a practice and asked his boys to write on the ball the name of someone they wanted to dedicate the game to. Most boys chose a parent, grandparent or another significant adult in their life, like a teacher or clergy. However, Spencer Wilson knew immediately who he would write on the ball, his friend Josh Rominger. Josh wasn’t a teammate or even a classmate. Spencer had met him while undergoing treatment for a rare form of tissue cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma. Spencer had beat the cancer once, but it came back requiring him to have leg surgery when he was 13. Despite weakness, immune problems, and damaged leg muscles, he persevered at basketball, his refuge from the pain, nausea and often hopelessness of his disease. When the cancer returned he was told he had less than a 7 percent chance of survival beyond six months. Then an experimental treatment became available at the National Institute of Health, and Spencer was approved for a trial. In 2011, his cancer went back into remission and his strength and health returned to its pre-cancer levels. His friend Josh was not so fortunate. He passed away from his cancer last year.
Once Spencer wrote Josh’s name on the ball, he said he felt a burst of strength and optimism. Throughout the nail-biter game, he would touch the ball during each time out and get a new surge of power. He said he felt that Josh was there with him, urging him on. The game eventually wound down to the final seconds with Mount Airy ahead by one and at the free throw line. With only two seconds left in the game and no time outs, Mount Airy missed the free throw. Spencer’s teammate got the rebound and passed it to him at the top of the key. Spencer dribbled once and then heaved the ball 50 feet toward the basket as the clock ticked down. The buzzer went off just as his shot fell through the net, giving Bishop McGuinness three points and the win. Spencer couldn’t believe what he had just accomplished. “It was a dream.”
Before the game, Spencer wrote a letter to Josh’s mom in which he said, “His joy illuminated the room, and it was always apparent to me that he was special. Just wanted to let you know the impact your son has on my life still to this day. I will never forget him. Play for Josh." Spencer’s coach stated, “It was one of those surreal moments where you know you were part of something bigger than yourself.” These two statements exemplify the best of youth sports. The game was about playing not only for the team, the school and the win, it was also about understanding that no one is more important than the sport. When Spencer played for his friend, he did so without any expectation of glory for himself. He wanted to highlight Josh, and even when the shot went in, his first thoughts were for the role his friend played in the win. Spencer’s parents also had no expectations. His mom stated how difficult it was to watch her son struggle through 15 rounds of chemotherapy and two battles with cancer with little hope of survival. She and Spencer’s father were just grateful that the coach made allowances for Spencer’s treatments and his limitations, keeping him on the squad so he could continue enjoying the sport that sustained him through his agonies. While his shot would certainly make any high school player proud to put on his or her highlights tape, Spencer isn’t looking to cash in on his success. He just wants people to remember his friend. As he put it a week after the game, “Today is Josh’s birthday. He would have been 19 years old. I think of him every day.”
This message of both hope and dedication enrich the experience of youth sports for all of us. It reminds us that playing a sport isn’t about getting a college scholarship or a professional contract. Those are achievements which may or may not come. Instead we need to live in the here and now, enjoying the moments of play that occur daily without having to apply each event to some unrealized ambition. Today my granddaughters ran to raise money for their school. They were asked to get pledges for up to 36 laps around the track. My youngest granddaughter just ran her laps and my daughter texted me as she completed 26 still going strong. Eventually she ran all 36 laps plus four more. The event had no winners or losers because it wasn’t really a race other than the runners competing against their own drive. But in completing the 40 laps, I couldn’t help but think of my granddaughter as a winner for persevering without any reward other than a pat on the back. I wished I could be there to give her a big hug for her day. It’s difficult to remember that youth sports can exist solely for the enjoyment and physical training of our kids. We don’t need any other agenda for them to achieve. We forget that because we are constantly bombarded with stories about 8-year-olds being signed to European soccer contracts and 16-year-olds skipping high school and college to play pro. We are so driven for our children to be the LeBron James of their generation that we forget there is only one of him and there are millions of young players. Having a dream isn’t bad, but sacrificing the fun of childhood in the pursuit of that dream steals from our players and us the opportunity just to luxuriate in the moment.
My hope is that Spencer’s and Josh’s story will inspire all of us to play selflessly for the joy of the sport. If we can honor the contribution of friends, parents, coaches and families along the way, that would be wonderful. Learning to be part of “something bigger” teaches our children humility and perspective. We would all do well to develop the vision. It is difficult to remember that this is a planet of 6 billion, so the chances of our child being the best and brightest in a sport isn’t even as good as the odds of winning the Powerball. But the odds of our kids having great memories of a childhood well-spent are in our favor if we can remember to provide them love, praise and joy. We always hope that we’ll be the parents of that special one. The irony is that each of us already is the parent of a special child. If that exceptionalness translates into someone as strong and capable as Spencer Wilson and Josh Rominger, then I would say we’ve hit the jackpot.