They were starting to line up at the locker room door, but my left cleat didn’t feel right. I kept fiddling with the shoelace trying to get it tight. It didn’t matter, it was time to walk down the sidewalk, down the hill that overlooks the turf. Bright lights overhead as the sky was just losing the little bit of light that was left. Over the backside of the stadium seats, the press box with our mascot’s face painted across the roof, was the sun setting on my last game.
The air was warm but the breeze was cooling down as parents gathered together on the home side, settling in with hot cocoa and stadium dogs, one more time. I heard the distinct WOOOOOOOOOO from my mom as I crossed the black rubber track onto the impossibly green turn. I turned and gave her a little wave and a smile. That just made her WOOOOO more. The milk jug filled with quarters rang out as our captain’s mom shook it with fury, as she did at every game. We knew that meant it was game time. Dads lined the fence, too excited to climb the bleachers and sit down, ready to pace back and forth and shout dad things out to us during the game.
I settled into a jog, we turned each corner and then lined up facing the sunset and our folks as we stepped through the motions of our dynamic warm up. I looked left and right at the other seniors. We were all quiet tonight, we knew we were finishing something we’d started as children together. The underclassmen were chatty, and fun, and ready for just another game, but we were somewhere else. We were flashing back through every memorable moment this sport has brought us in 12 years. We were remembering the words that were implanted into our heads every weekend, every summer, every day after school. It had been a lot, more influence in our lives than anything else, this sport and it’s coaches.
I looked over at my coaches, clipboards in hand, game plan surely being hashed out and final line up adjustments being made. But they felt it too. Every year they have one last game with another class of athletes. Every year they have to say goodbye. I don’t envy them at all. I only have to say goodbye once.
At the end of this game, my coach will ask me what coach asks every athlete at the end of their playing career. “What did you learn about life from playing this game?” I’ve been thinking about this a lot, about what I might say. I reflected on the days I struggled, on the words my coaches used when they taught me. Some were encouraging and full of belief. Some were demeaning, embarrassing, made me hate this sport. But not this year, not this coach. This coach never let me get through a day without having a talk with me, with every player, just to see how I was doing and make sure I was challenging myself.
“Did you get uncomfortable today?” Coach would ask me. “There’s still time, make yourself proud before the whistle blows, even in the little things, find something that makes yourself celebrate.”
And I did. Every day I left that field with a feeling of satisfaction, even if I’d just been the first person in line at every drill. No matter how rough practice was, I was always on a journey to find the celebration, in anything I could. Maybe I was dropping the ball all day, but I could be the first one back after water break. I could get first in line. I could be the last one out after practice because I helped coach carry all the gear to the car.
I saw coach walking over to me as the field was clearing out, a little mist in my eye and possibly did I see coach misting up a bit?
“Well, senior, what did you learn from years of playing this game?” I was asked as coach put a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. I smiled back, pushing aside the emotions, pushing aside the incredible overwhelm at this moment of conclusion, and I answered.
“Coach, I learned that I want to be like you because you have figured out the secret to happiness. I learned that it’s in the little things. It’s in the belief that there can be good no matter what’s in front of us. The belief that I have the power to make my own happiness, to define success, to make the others around me feel empowered to make the best with what’s available to us, in every single interaction, action, thought, and process. I learned that when you can master finding the best in the little things, then you can become a coach, and pass it on, like you did. Coach, every day you asked me to make myself proud, I want you to know that I did that every day. I had coaches in the past that didn’t believe in me, teammates who weren’t very good at team. But, when I define success and seek to master even the little things, I let go of those opinions and I find the very happiness I was looking for.”
I could see coach starting to tear up and wipe the corner of an eye. I said, “Coach, I have a question. This has been so incredible, how did you deal with having to say goodbye to playing when it was your time to move on?”
Coach looked at me and broke into an incredible smile and then said, with an arm around me and steering me towards the field exit, “That one’s easy, I became a coach.”
A little story to remember that your players are learning about life from you, whether that is your intention or not. What would they tell you at the end of their playing career, if you asked them what your coaching, words, and actions, had taught them about life?