“Winning shapes the soul of bad movies and novels and lives. It is the subject of thousands of insufferably bad books and is often a sworn enemy of art.
Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass. Though I learned some things from the games we won that year, I learned a much, much more from loss.”
-Pat Conroy, My Losing Season
I published my third book, Crossroads, in February, but it’s no time to rest or relax. I’m dusting off a long story I planned to put in the book, but decided to leave out because it was just too hard to work on at the time, and it would’ve run my page count to over 500. But now, I figure the personal, family storm that was December and January is in the recent — if not distant — past. It’s the off-season, and for some reason, I feel like working on this story again. My intent is to publish the completed product on Amazon in Kindle format sometime soon.
A preview follows, from the Prologue:
“It ended for me on a bright, crisp, late November afternoon on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. And that was fitting; I kicked the last football I ever kicked in official competition under the same blue sky I had kicked my first football at age 3 — a Texas sky.
Between that first football and the last one, across the 20 years that had somehow passed without me really noticing, I must’ve kicked a football ten-thousand times, maybe more. I kicked footballs in my backyard and my front yard; on dozens of playgrounds; on unused soccer fields when my brother or sister were playing a game on another field; on the side lot of my paternal grandparents’ family home where their carport served as the goalposts; on school fields when I had to jump the fence or squeeze through the chained space between the gates and run if the groundskeeper showed up; then in real games in little league, middle school, and high school; and then in some of the biggest college football stadiums in the world, like Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Memorial Stadium in Austin, Kyle Field in College Station, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
On a brilliantly sunlit mid-September day in the heartland of Indiana, I nailed a 51-yarder against the Indiana Hoosiers in front of a hostile crowd and against an Indiana team that was in the midst of being a solid program for a while and a team that would later send two great kickers — placekicker Pete Stoyanovich and punter Dan Strizynski — into the NFL. It was my career-long, and we lost 35–10. Such is the randomness of being an athlete and especially, a kicker. Your big moments as an individual player can come at some otherwise pedestrian times, such as when your team is getting blown out on the road.
But by that Saturday in late 1990 — four fast years after that big day in Bloomington, Indiana — those two decades since I had first kicked a ball in my parents’ front yard appeared to have shot by like a bullet train. It was suddenly over. The realization of this fact and the hard truth that it was all finished would not set in fully for several months. So as I walked slowly across the turf after the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, I shook a few opponents’ hands, said hello and goodbye to the guys I knew on the other team, and made my way into the tunnel to the locker room.
Although we had just beaten SMU 42–29, we were a subdued group; there was no shouting or backslapping. The room actually sounded and looked like we had lost. There were really two reasons for this; beating an SMU team that was only one year removed from the NCAA Death Penalty — in which SMU had not even fielded a football team during the 1987 and 1988 seasons — was certainly not something to celebrate; it was like beating a really good high school team; they were all sophomores and freshmen. This is not an insult to SMU; they literally had not played in the 1987 or 1988 seasons, and most of the players who had been there before left the school and transferred elsewhere. We had just defeated a team made up of kids who graduated high school barely two years prior, and they had just put up almost 30 points on the vaunted Southwest Conference champions from the year before. But the real reason my teammates and I didn’t celebrate is because we were glad the season was over, and it was only our third win out of eleven games that season. There was nothing to cheer about.
On top of the pall that all of the foregoing cast over our locker room, we seniors had the added realization that for us, there would be no “We’ll get ‘em next year;” there would be no next season to correct what had just happened. Although we went out on a winning note in our final game, we would not go out as winners. This was it. It was over for us.
These truths went unspoken as several of us made our way around the room to shake another teammate’s hand or give him as close to a hug as young men playing Division One college football could bring themselves to give; showing too much emotion was a sign of weakness. Men in general are terrible at expressing love for other men; they engage in ham-handed and contorted rituals to do what comes so naturally for women. And this affliction is especially true for young men. And so we did what we did to try and tell our brothers what they meant to us, but it was never enough.
We rode the buses back out the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, walked up the ramp into our chartered plane, and took off for Fayetteville. When we landed at Drake Field 90 minutes later, I gathered my bags, walked to my car, and drove alone back to the campus. I parked at Wilson Sharp House — the athletic dorm that no longer exists — walked up to my dorm room, and dropped everything. I flipped on my small television and found a game to watch. I sat down, looked around, and for the first time, wondered what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I’d be done with semester finals in two weeks, and the holidays loomed. My outlook was as cold as it was outside on that late November night in the Ozarks.
Football and sports in general had provided me with structure, a built-in set of friends, and purpose. The structure and purpose were now suddenly gone. “What am I going to do now?” I asked myself.
I felt numb and empty.”
Glen Hines is the author of three books that make up the Anthology Trilogy — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.