(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: WayneAmerica.com is starting a new feature, which is actually a resurrection of an old standard. Mike’s “From The Bleachers” column has been seen in just about every newspaper he has worked at over the years, and he is bringing the column to WayneAmerica.com to talk about sports in our community. His first submission is included below.)
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Way back when I was in high school, a popular coach was let go by the local school board after a disappointing season.
In spite of overwhelming support from the community, which included current and former players, the board voted to relieve him of his coaching duties, sparking a room full of angry basketball players, of which I was one.
After going home and expressing my displeasure, my mom suggested that I write a letter to the editor to the local paper. I sat down and wrote a page-long verbal beatdown of the four board members who voted for my coach’s removal — all of whom were, shall we say, major leaders in the community — and took it to the newspaper the next morning.
The newspaper publisher, a friend of the family, was very impressed with the writing of the 16-year-old that stood before her, but warned that if she published the letter with my name on it, our family would face no end of grief and would probably be run out of town. She suggested publishing the letter with an anonymous name for the signature.
The letter, signed “A devoted Bargen-Ball fan” (after the coach, Bob Bargen), got precisely the response she said would come — my mom worked with the wife of one of the board members I called out, and she told me, “Don’t you EVER tell anybody you wrote that letter,” as she had to listen to her co-worker rant and rave about the letter and promised to rain Hell upon the author if she ever found out who wrote it.
Two months later, I got a phone call from the publisher, asking if I’d be interested in a job — writing sports for the local paper. After a summer’s worth of work, I was given an opportunity to write my very own sports column . . . and From The Bleachers was born.
It’s been almost 35 years since my introduction into the world of media. I’ve won dozens of awards for my work as a writer, photographer, page designer and publisher. I’ve been nominated to the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame — the first full-time media member ever selected for this prestigious award. The column has allowed me to speak with countless coaches, athletes, fans and other members of the sports community and express a wide variety of opinions — some controversial, others more of a common-sense variety — throughout my career in the newspaper business.
When I left The Wayne Herald in the fall of 2016, From The Bleachers was “retired” as a regular column. I’ve expressed thoughts and opinions on sports topics through my Facebook page, and a friend suggested that maybe my Wayne-related thoughts and observations would be a good fit for this particular online vehicle.
And so, to quote legendary U.S. general Douglas MacArthur — “the bleachers” have returned.
From The Bleachers will be an occasional feature here, focusing mostly on the athletic endeavors of the student-athletes at Wayne High School and Wayne State College, along with the occasional interview with people who are, or have been, part of the Wayne sports community over the years.
And so, without further adieu . . . it’s game time.
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It’s been said that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing — and I’d like to disagree with that notion.
Now, when we’re talking about professional sports, winning certainly is important and anything less than a championship is considered a failure. Legendary Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, during his more lucid period earlier in life (before he turned into that lunatic who dragged the Raiders into NFL oblivion before he died), used to keep it simple: just win, baby.
At the local level, though, winning shouldn’t be THAT important, where anything less than a state championship is considered unacceptable by the people who support the hometown teams.
There are great lessons that can be learned in sports, regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard. For the kids who put on the blue-and-white of Wayne High, winning is the end goal, but the knowledge that comes from competition, regardless of the final outcome shown on the wall, in the scorecard or beyond the outfield fence, is something that is of far greater value down the road.
Ask any of the athletes who competed this year what the final score of a particular game was. They might be able to tell you — maybe they’ve already forgotten. Ask them what they LEARNED from that game, though, and the chances are they’ll be able to come up with something.
They made an adjustment in their swing that allowed them to catch up to a pitcher’s fastball, or they positioned their hands in a manner that allowed them to control a block for that extra step to keep a hole open for the running back to get through. Maybe it was a change in their timing to help pound an attack off a short set, or changing the grip on their putter to help them control their stroke on the green. It could even be that little extra conditioning that they worked on to help them handle a tough run at the next cross country meet.
Sometimes, we forget that these ARE high school kids and not paid professionals. We also sometimes lose track of the fact that the coaches are, first and foremost, our kids' teachers, both in the classroom and in whatever sport they participate in. Getting caught up in the hoopla of wins and losses is easy for us adults in the stands, but sometimes what gets lost in our desire to see our kids win a state title is that these kids are not only competing at their best, but learning about the game and, more important, themselves. It's easy to see it and critique it from the stands, and it's easy for the adults to cast blame on a teammate, or the coach or a bad call by the official. That's not a lesson our kids need to learn . . . better they learn to experience the successes and the mistakes and learn from them and take ownership of everything, win or lose.
Everybody wants to win a state championship, and it’s always heartbreaking for those kids who come up short in the end. I watched the Wayne High softball team gather in a circle after their season ended at state, and there wasn’t a dry eye among the group. When the volleyball girls came out of the locker room for a team photo after losing in the district finals Saturday afternoon, the tears were still flowing as they smiled through them while the parents and the local photographer furiously snapped away. The look of disappointment on the football players’ faces could be seen all the way up in the press box after their season ended as well.
It won’t happen today, but as time goes on, these young men and women are going to look back on these seasons and will better remember the work they did before, during and after the games than the games themselves. The weightlifting, the long runs around town, the seemingly-endless conditioning drills, the time in the batting cage, on the practice field or in the gym with coaches yelling at them and pushing them to get better — they will look back on those experiences and realize that all that work not only made them better athletes, but better people as well. They discovered that nothing good comes easy, that hard work will lead to rewards, that settling for second-best is not an option when you know you can do better.
Watching the kids who represented Wayne High this fall, I never came away feeling like they hadn’t given their all. Some nights, they were simply not as talented as the other team. But that never stopped them from leaving everything they had in between the lines. Giving their best, regardless of the outcome, was what I saw them do this fall sports season, and I hope the lessons they gained from those experiences are ones they carry with them long after their days of playing competitive sports have come to an end.
As far as I’m concerned — when it comes to youth and high school sports . . . THAT is the only thing.