MAXWELL: Winning sports is good for the soul

1/26/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in San Diego for Super Bowl 37. As a St. Petersburg resident, I am thrilled to finally have a winner in sports. Having lived in Chicago and Gainesville, I long ago took winning for granted.

Winning in sports is good for the soul. But all winning in sports is not reflected on the scoreboard. Much of the good that comes from sports is never seen by non-athletes.

Many people want to see sports, high school, college and professional, just go away. Fortunately, for society’s sake, sports will not go away.

My newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, used a lot of ink letting anti-Super Bowl folks discuss how they plan to block out the biggest annual game in all sports.

I will not rehash the plans. Super Bowl Sunday is a good excuse for me to discuss the value of sports (football in my case) in the lives of boys.

I attended college on a football scholarship, so I naturally appreciate the practical value of sports. Even more, though, I appreciate many of the intangibles of sports, which I first learned in high school.

Our four high school football coaches at my rural high school in Florida were fathers to my teammates and me. We believed in them, we looked up to them, we went to them for advice of every kind.

Football anchored our lives. It was the one thing we boys did not have to do. Being on the team was not mandatory. Once we joined the team, however, performing well on the field and all that went with it became our duty. Few boys ever quit the team.

Never having more than 20 players on the roster at one time (the first string played both ways), we were a family. We looked out for one another both on and off the field. We attended the same churches.

Football made us, mostly children of farm workers pulpwood laborers, care about the welfare of others. Although we learned to compete as individuals, we also learned the value of cooperation and team work. We learned a lot about fair play and decency on our practice field. Our coaches were tough and wanted to win, but they always did what was best for us as boys. To them, we were boys, their sons.

I will never forget the night of our biggest game of the season, during my senior year, when coach Bernard Irving pulled our star left half back out of the game and let a bench warmer go in to carry the ball from our one-yard line. On the first try, the skinny kid hit at the line and was thrown for a loss. On the second attempt, he hit the line, bounced off, reversed field and scored.

Coach risked losing the game (We lost anyway.) But with those two plays, coach changed a boy’s life forever. That boy never warmed a bench in any part of his life again. He retired two years ago as a successful high school football coach and math teacher in Miami. In every speech he delivers to kids, he credits coach Irving for changing his life.

Football taught us to take responsibility. We learned the simpliest things, such as being on time, taking care of school equipment, avoiding off-campus activities in which we could be injured. We learned how to prioritize the “stuff” in our lives. And, given where we lived, football kept us off the streets and out of trouble with the law.

I think of my own son. I will go to my grave believing that he never would have gone to prison if he had not been kicked off the football team. We mistakenly transferred him to a new school three days after the deadline to play football. The sad part was that officials discovered the error after my son had played three games and had become a standout running back.

From that point on, my son’s young life went to hell.

Today, when I hear self-righteous people diss sports and young jocks, I wonder if they have met a coach Irving, if they have met a boy like my son _ who needed football to organize his life.

I can truly say that high school football paved the way for me to fulfill my dreams of becoming a writer. My family could not afford to send me to college. Coach Irving believed in my abilities and sent me off to Texas to play for Pop Long at Wiley College.

Pop was the meanest man I have ever known. I still see his big bald head. I still see that limp of his. I still hear his booming voice calling my name: “Florida, what the hell are you doing, boy? Get the lead out and act like you know how to run over somebody.”

Pop’s voice scared me. He made me perform beyond my natural abilities. Even now, I play Pop Long with myself: When I feel mediocrity creeping into my life, I yell at myself as Pop would have.

Bernard Irving and Pop Long _ two football coaches _ were my mentors and surrogate fathers. My own father left home when I was 9 years old. The game of football was my touchstone.

Not all is good in sports, obviously. But the good both it does _ both for individuals and for society at large _ far outweighs the bad.

Oh, yes, the Super Bowl. Go Bucs! Go Raiders! A lot of young football players will be watching today, and some of them will be inspired to someday play in the big game themselves.