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The finest season

Coach Rick addresses the Cowboys.
Coach Rick addresses the Cowboys.

Anyone who reads this blog with some regularity knows my son Emmett has a long and distinguished history of playing on youth sports teams that never win.

Although he’s only 10, the kid cannot catch a break. Let’s say he’s enlisted with, oh, a dozen squads in his life. I’d estimate two have had winning marks, and four went entire seasons without notching a single triumph. The bad news—the boy will likely never drink the championship bubbly. The great news—he truly could not care less. Emmett plays sports to exercise and have fun. That’s it. He’s literally told me, “Dad, winning and losing don’t make a big difference to me.”

Some might read this and think, “Ugh, born loser.” I feel the opposite. I’m proud. I’m happy. I’m encouraged. Few things are uglier than the overly competitive stain my generation of parenting has left on youth sports. Back in the day, we played one sport one season, a different sport a different season. Versatility was stressed, as was fun and kinship. Now, we have 10-year olds being forced to pick their game—”You either devote yourself to year-round baseball, or you can’t be on the Cobras!” Happens all the time, and is, truly, beyond shameful.

I digress.

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Emmett played flag football last spring and absolutely loved it. So he signed up again, and was placed on the Cowboys. The first practice was held at a nearby park, and you could tell the team was—talent-wise—pretty OK. There were a bunch of kids like Emmett (He’s a solid athlete with good endurance, decent speed and a high IQ for the intricacies of the game), and one nuclear explosive runner who was fast, strong and competitive. In flag, most teams have a single superstud who sorta carries the load, and this kid was clearly destined to be ours.

Then his parents switched him to another roster.

With that, we were pretty much toast. We finished the season 0-7, and our losses were rarely close. The final scores tended to hang in the 19-0 and 30-14 realm. I helped out as an assistant coach, and we simply didn’t have the horses. Other teams were faster, deeper, more experienced. They knew it and our kids knew it.

But here’s the beauty of it all—I don’t think Emmett’s ever had more fun on a team. The members of the Cowboys were a delightful, spunky, inquisitive group of ragamuffins who played with enthusiasm, with joy, with … dignity. There were no tantrums, no rants, no excuses.  One of our better players was a lightning-quick Girl Scout named Sophia, and the weekly practice debate often focused on whether Thin Mints or Samoas were the finest of the cookies (Sophia wrongly voted for Samoas). Our roster included an Otis and an Otto, making us the league’s top club that featured both an Otis and Otto. There’s this kid, Stone, who had this unique grace about him, and Joey, the coach’s son, was always convinced a huge interception was about to happen. Perhaps my favorite member of the Cowboys (besides Emmett) was Jack—a child unlike any I’ve ever met.

Jack is a big kid; sorta reminds me of Jim Burt from the old Giants. He had never played flag football before; didn’t even know what a screen pass was; had to have the line of scrimmage explained to him. Yet every … single … week ol’ Jack oozed enthusiasm. You’d be standing next to him on the field, and he’d just blurt out, “This is fantastic, right!” or “I’m so happy to be here!” A few games ago he finally pulled a flag, and you’d have thought he discovered 1,000 bricks of gold. He leapt five feet into the air and bellowed, “Yes! Look! Yes!” Today—I kid you not—Jack looked at me and said, with 100-percent sincerity, “It’s really just been an honor to play with these guys.”

I mean … amazing.

The person who truly impressed me was Rick Miller, the coach. They don’t have a Coach of the Year award in youth flag football, and if they did it probably wouldn’t go to a dude who finished 0-7. But the man was patient, positive, attentive. I can’t overstate this—we were a bad team, and neither Mike Tomlin nor the reincarnated ghost of George Halas would have led us to the promised land. Truth be told, there’s only so much one can do—wins and loses-wise—as a flag football coach. Yet I never saw Rick yell, berate, demean or even lose his patience. He spoke to the players like they mattered, and encouraged from the opening practice to today’s final whistle.

We won nary a game.

It was the finest season.

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