In the fall, a whiff of fallen leaves evokes echoes of marching bands and whistles blown. We feel the cold aluminum bleacher seats and the prickle of wool scarves. Like Pavlov’s dog, our mouths water, imagining hot coffee at 8 am soccer games and chili dogs at football halftime.
As soon as our kids show any interest in athletics, we put them on teams, so we can experience the sights, sounds and smells of the fall sports season. We justify our pushy behavior by telling ourselves that our kids will benefit from learning about teamwork.
But do they?
Over a decade ago, our family was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and our son, Hayden, was a squishy little 10-year-old who preferred piano to athletic pursuits.
Early in the fall of his 5th grade year, Hayden showed an inkling of interest in football. As visions of tailgate parties danced in our heads, we jumped on the opportunity and contacted the local flag football league.
“Sorry ma’am, the teams are full . . . now, if your husband would be willing to coach, your son could play this season.”
Although my husband, Francis, had never coached sports before and was completely ignorant of the league team selection process, he agreed, because he was between deployments and it was a rare chance to spend some quality time with Hayden.
We received a roster of 15 kids — Hayden and 14 others — who transferred from overcrowded teams. What we didn’t know, was that the other coaches had been asked to give up a couple of kids each, and of course, they picked their worst players.
Oblivious, we showed up for our first practice ready to access the boys’ talents.
The lineup was not what we had expected.
None of the boys knew a thing about football. A few were skinny. Most were small. Three had learning disabilities. But they were all excited to play.
We called ourselves “The Sharks” and accepted the rejected purple league jerseys without complaint. Practices were dicey. The plays looked more like people running from a fire, but we were hopeful that it would all come together on game day.
As self-appointed team mom, I went overboard. I ordered the “Jaws” soundtrack. I made up cheers. I bought sweatshirts and little purple towels.
Game day finally arrived, and we were ready. Parents donned their Sharks wear, swung their purple towels and cheered. Players gathered around Coach Francis for a pre-game pep talk.
“Listen boys, I want you all to go out there today and show ‘em what you’re made of! Let’s tell everybody, if you swim with the Sharks, you’re gonna get bit!”
Both players and parents alike exploded into simultaneous applause and woo-hoos.
A half-hour later, we were down by three touchdowns, and our blissful ignorance of the corrupt team-selection process came to an abrupt end.
“Listen up, Sharks,” Francis barked during half-time, “don’t let the numbers on that scoreboard get you down! We’re the Sharks! Win or lose, we’re gonna fight and fight hard! Now go out there, boys, and give ‘em all you got!”
At the end of the third quarter, the ref called the game because they were beating us 40 to zilch.
The rest of the season was more of the same, and it wasn’t easy to keep up the morale of our little Sharks. But we persisted. Instead of emphasizing winning, we became determined to surprise the other team with our undying spirit.
At every game, we waved our purple towels, blared the “Jaws” theme song, and shouted our original Sharks cheers. At halftime, we threw candy footballs and the refs danced to our music. It became known in the league that, no matter the odds against the our team, the Sharks played every game to win.
Despite it all, we never scored one point.
The following year, I ran into a former Sharks mom at a local grocery store. She mentioned that, even though her son was placed on a winning team that fall, he confessed, “Mom, I wish this team was more like the Sharks.”
At that moment, I realized … despite a losing season, the Sharks were winners after all.