Note: Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago chronicling the emotions and aftermath of a bitter loss in a championship game.
Anyone needing an example of how important sports is to a young man or woman, I leave you exhibit A, one of hundreds of similar exhibits one may find across the country on almost any given day:
Saturday evening, Oxford ’s boys’ basketball team finished 32 minutes of excruciatingly intense basketball one point shy of Union Springs. I am sure each player that stepped on the floor is reliving moments where this could have been done better or that should have been executed more efficiently. One more basket or one more defensive stop, that was the thin line between victory and an arduous 35-mile drive back up Route 12 – a drive leaving far too much idle time for young men who suffered perhaps their most crushing defeat in any of their sports careers.
Let us be fair here: This was not a game Oxford performed poorly. Union Springs played superbly in the second half, and won the game thanks to the cool foul shooting hands of seniors Pat Chandler and Nick Schooley, who calmly bucketed 4-for-4 from the foul line in the waning seconds. It is in those moments where tremulous hands and butterflies aflutter in your belly can overwhelm a player’s nerves. Not here, however. In this instance, on that evening, one team executed just a smidgen better than the other.
As the clock ticked down toward zero, a buzzer-beating splash cleared the twine. Oxford sophomore, Cory Seiler, drew his team closer, fighting to the end. His hopes raised for an infinitesimal moment, that is, until he looked at the clock and saw it disappear to zero.
On the sidelines, Oxford players cradled their heads in their hands. They heard the sports anthem, “We are the Champions” by Queen resonate through the Broome County Arena, while trying not to look up as Union Springs players rejoiced, hugged, and smiled a mile wide. Such is the climax and almost clichéd ending of every sports event: The winners stand tall and proud, while the losers sit – or in some cases lay down.
Oxford senior Jeff Champlin laid flat on the Arena floor for a few moments after the buzzer. His tireless effort and emotions leaving him completely spent. He was helped up and consoled by fellow senior Andrew Hubman, who himself was receiving consolation from assistant coach Mike Chrystie not more than a minute or two earlier.
Following post-game awards, an agonizing tradition for those who have finished second, Oxford ’s basketball collective disappeared into their locker room. Parents, friends, and family waited patiently as the team had a final meeting as a unit – the last time this unique group of players would play together.
One by one, each player filed out; not a dry eye in the lot, and each sought the open arms of mom, the welcomed arm around the shoulder from dad or a smile and friendly countenance from a dear friend. There was nothing pithy or erudite to say, just a presence of caring and understanding from the people these young men love the most.
Finally, head coach Tim Davis emerged, he, too, wiping tears from his eyes. A fellow reporter asked him what was said in the locker room. Surely, Davis had some emotional speech to share with his group. His players had displayed grit and toughness under the most substantial pressure of their sports lives. What was Davis ’ reply to that reporter: “I didn’t say anything. We just sat there together.”
What more to be said when there is mutual understanding, and a day in history none of these players will ever forget. Yet that silence was broken, broken by a senior who recognized the significance of the moment, while also realizing years may pass before a team of this caliber dons the Oxford black, red, and white.
Senior, Champlin, who will likely play football next season on the collegiate level, stood up and delivered the message that elicited the outpouring of tears. He spoke of his love for his fellow teammates, how he could not imagine going to battle on the court with any other group of guys, and he summarized his team as one Oxford would always remember.
These athletes did not finish as winners on the basketball court, but no one will ever call the 2007-2008 Blackhawks losers. What I have learned through my interaction with the Oxford community is the impeccably high character of its basketball players.
Surely, everyone who followed this team will spin tales of its accomplishments in the years to come. Some anecdotes may get an embellishment or two, and some things described may never have actually happened Likely, a revisionist historian may place the Blackhawks on a whole new lofty pedestal.
Nonetheless, time presses on, and all of the players will advance in their respective careers. Some will return next season to the team, some will move on to college, and others may decide to strike out on their own into the adult world.
The obvious lesson gained is that one learns more from failure than success. (I am confident in stating, though, that the Blackhawks would not have missed learning this lesson of life). Ultimately, the best lessons learned were the tests of character under adversity. While sports is not, ultimately, of great significance among the more important things in life, it does serve as a valuable teaching tool.
In the process of playing a game, these young men learned how to work as a cohesive unit, to give your best effort at all times, to pick up when others are faltering, and to unselfishly support the accomplishments of teammates and friends.
Those are important lessons that will foster success – for all of them – the rest of their lives.