Thursday, February 9, 2012

Politics and Sports: In the Arena

Reprinted with Permission of the Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times

Folks, I’m saturated with campaigns for the moment. Primary this, caucus that, nonbinding whatever. Three GOP Primary contests earlier this week and a thousand more to go. Being in the game for a quarter century as pretty much a bagman, I always marvel at the eternal lessons of politics.

Adversity, tenacity, victory -- and sometimes, alas, defeat. I grimace at them all and yet I've embraced them all for much of my young and adult life. They’re universal human experiences, but it seems they are particular American characteristics.

There’s another arena of life where these tests hit close and that’s the wide world of sports. While my days on a field and a court are long gone, I've tried to pass on resilience – but mericfully not my meager talent -- to my three sons. They may be too young for politics, but the old man has placed them firmly in the crucible of athletics.

Of course, there are countless parents who push their kids towards sports of all kinds. Heck, I see them at evening practices, at weekend games, in the early mornings driving to a pool or an ice rink. For example, this past weekend I was at a 7th grade rec league basketball game for young Darby and there were nearly 70 people in the stands of a cold middle-school gym at 9 a.m. on a grey Saturday -- parents, siblings, grandparents yelling around like it was an NBA game.

The night before no less, I was at a wrestling tournament for middle son Braden in a high school gym – stuffy and dusty and hung with faded banners of championships from the 1970s -- where there were 12 teams and more than 400 parents milling around.

This past fall I attended a high school football game -- featuring two sons -- in a Division I college football stadium that was three-quarters full. I recently went to a parents meeting for eldest son Devlin’s Varsity lacrosse team and in attendance were both parents for every single kid. Man, this is what we call “involvement.”

With three boys, there’s been a reflexive impulse to have them on teams, push them to compete hard, and most importantly, have them excel. Hey, here’s a fun stat: In 2011, my three sons were on a total of 23 teams (swimming, wrestling, lacrosse, football, basektball, and soccer) and plaed in more than 283 games and 840 practices. I know. I counted.

Yes, I plead guilty to riding my kids hard – and I know there are more than a few parents out there doing the same thing. You want the kids to excel at the sports at which they have showed real promise. And yes, I have urged them to either drop, or spend minimum time on, those sports at which they have no chance for stand-out play.

I recall as clearly today as eight years ago physically manhandling a kid into a car to go to a lacrosse practice. I get a bit disturbed today by my behavior then, but at the time I was adamant. Unnamed son was in tears, I was frustrated. I knew that to give in – to let him not go to practice -- would start a slide that might possibly never end. He went to practice, banged a bunch of kids around, and today he’s a premier player.

I also recall when one son got cut from a school basketball team. It was the first time ever a Nelligan had been cut from a team. Huge deal. But I knew then that even if he’d made the team, he would have ridden the bench (hey, just like Dad!), and that he never would have risen in talent – or in height – to be anything more than a third-teamer. He’d be on suburban teams that would get crushed by inner-city teams and what's the point or value in that? I've seen this movie over and over.

And yeah, he was good at soccer because he was and is very fast and very quick. But going far in that sport is a numbers game; again, there are teams made up of players for whom soccer is a national pastime and these teams beat the bejeebers out of suburban teams every time. Again, what's the value in that endgame?

Most importantly, all three boys were and are very good at lacrosse, and thus we've played and played – on weeknights and weekends, on fields everywhere, endlessly throwing the ball to one another, doing made-up drills, crouching in face-offs, not gently hitting each other while in full gear.

I’ve driven them both all over to practices and games and even tournaments in other states. There've been games in which their teams – and the boys themselves -- would get beat badly.

There were also a lot of victories. And through it all, I knew this was the sport they were mastering -- and they have. Now, we’re at the point where college coaches are recruiting the eldest, and the second will see his share of recruiters as well.

In all of this athletics saga, I never told my sons to have “fun” out there on a field or a on a gym floor or in a pool. Sports are about fun, yes.

But sports are really about satisfaction – doing your best, which is better than your best was a week ago. Sports are about gaining self-esteem through achievement.

In politics, as in these endless primaries, the cycles of preparation, practices, games, and victories and losses mirror that of the lowly 7th grade basketball game – or the clinching high school lacrosse championship.

Two bruising worlds, two arenas where you succeed or come up short, but where the eternal lessons about character and endurance are taught every moment.