It’s not actually about football, is it? A couple of months into my first married season, in 2017, where my only skin in the game (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, amen) was Ben at the start, I now have vested interest in every single player, inhaling and exhaling with their triumphs and failures. There is something unmatchable about high school football, too. You are in the thick of it with the parents, trainers, cheerleaders, coach’s wives, and band members – making it an entire village effort. And with so many involved, it’s as though every game defines more and more of a culture.
A culture that either rests on winning, is disrupted by loss, or forged in the fire of both. Winning is easy – for everyone. You get to celebrate, you aren’t exhausted by cheers that seem in vain, and your finger gladly points in the air on beat with the school song. Where there is a win, there is tangible energy in the air, and it plows forward into the next game, full steam ahead—but losing? Losing is not for the faint of heart.
At some point in my AP English career during high school, we were given the task of finding X number of poems and annotating them. I, by sheer lack of preparation and certain procrastination, came across a poem titled “Carry On” authored by Robert William Service. This poem is forever engrained in my brain.
Here reads the first half of the poem:
“It’s easy to fight when everything’s right, and you’re mad with the thrill and the glory; it’s easy to cheer when victory’s near, and wallow in fields that are gory. It’s a different song when everything’s wrong, when you’re feeling infernally mortal; when it’s ten against one, and hope there is none, buck up, little soldier, and chortle: Carry on! Carry on! There isn’t much punch in your blow. You’re glaring and staring and hitting out blind; you’re muddy and bloody, but never you mind. Carry on! Carry on! You haven’t the ghost of a show. It’s looking like death, but while you’ve a breath, Carry on, my son! Carry on! And so in the strife of the battle of life it’s easy to fight when you’re winning; it’s easy to slave, and starve and be brave, when the dawn of success is beginning. But the man who can meet despair and defeat with a cheer, there’s the man of God’s choosing; the man who can fight to Heaven’s own height is the man who can fight when he’s losing.”
As much as I, and probably everyone else, would love to win, there’s something to be figured out in the losses as well. Football isn’t really just about football, is it. It’s about this incredible vehicle that allows young men to be shaped and molded by seasons under fatherly coaching staff, by the weight of victory and defeat, and by a brotherhood that hopefully transcends matching jerseys. A winning culture is actually one that can say, even though we lost, we carry on – even though we lost, we grow. I believe this too applies to life. Robert Service does such a beautiful job of pointing out our human tendencies – to ring and clang the bell when we’re winning and doing fine, and to totally fold and buckle when we’re not. And yet, even so, exists an alternative – the capacity for mental toughness, for perseverance, because even amid losing there is ground to be made. Whether we are trying to crawl out of debt, scrape ourselves out of addiction, struggling in relationships, fighting for our family, facing rejection after rejection, despairing at loss(es) or simply cannot catch a break – there is an art form to “losing” well.
Sometimes losing widens the lens through which we see the world, strengthens us where winning possibly could not, and offers an invitation to: Carry On! So, whether a win or loss is chalked on the board, it’s never really just about football, is it?