What a difference a year makes…

A year ago on my birthday I spent most of the day en route and then in a foreign hospital. I found myself in a room with 4 other men ranging in age from their mid-20s to their 70s. I got demolished in chess by one them. We could speak about 10 words to each other as I didn’t speak Czech and he didn’t speak English. The following morning I was operated on in a foreign country.

This year my birthday was rather different. A lot happened yesterday, but the following anecdote will suffice to describe it. At the end of August I started coaching a high school cross country team. 16 boys, 5 girls. It is my first time as a head coach. We had a race on Wednesday and if we had won I had planned to tell them thanks for the birthday gift: my first win as a head coach. We lost so I decided to simply play it cool. My two assistants wished me happy birthday at the start of practice, how they knew I wasn’t aware. I then ran the practice as normal: warm-up, run, core exercises, stretching, thoughts about the race the day before. Then per usual we came together for the end of practice prayer and cheer. Except instead of saying LCA (the school’s name) they broke into “Happy Birthday.” And then as we broke apart as a group one of the guys breaks out a full-size birthday cake.

This was no ordinary cake. It didn’t merely say “Happy Birthday” or have candles in it. It was picture of me transposed onto the frosting. Completely edible and delicious. One of my runners had gone onto Facebook and found a photo of me (we aren’t friends…I need to update my privacy settings…), printed it out and took it to the cake store. My assistant coaches gave me a nice card with a Dunkin gift card attached. The team had all signed a paper wishing me a happy birthday.

I’ve known these people less than a month. I apparently mentioned that my birthday was in 9 days in passing 9 days ago. I cannot express how utterly surprising all this was to me.

It’s easy for me to see the negatives in the world, to be cynical, to moan about all that is wrong. But people, as capable of they are of evil, also have a wondrous ability to do good. I saw that yesterday in my team and it was simply fantastic.


Remember the 1st amendment?

A story recently broke in the Boston area that I found interesting not only because of the mild controversy it has caused but because of the (in my view) troubling views of people who have commented on the event.

Here is my understanding of what happened. A group of 6th-graders from the suburb town of Wellesley went on a field trip to a local mosque. This was part of a social studies unit they were in the middle of called, “Enduring Beliefs and the World Today.” Before their trip to the mosque they had visited an synagogue, a gospel music performance, and met Hindus. My understanding is that the primary purpose of the visit was to have a tour of the building. At some point there was a prayer time (Muslims pray 5 times a day so the fact that their visit coincided with one of these is unsurprising.) During this time of a prayer, a number of the students on the field trip decided to join in. From what I have read, it looks like they did little more than line up with the people praying and briefly followed along with their actions. It doesn’t look like there was any coercion or involuntary participation.   A few wanted to join in and were allowed to do so. Strikingly, the least offended people of these student’s actions were their own parents who were helping chaperone the trip.

An outburst of media activity has set people off about this however. Some think having a field trip to a mosque is too much. Some are offended that students were allowed to join in the prayers. And some think that simply having students observe the prayers went too far. To all these people I say firmly, “Remember the 1st Amendment?”

In America we have freedom of religion not freedom from religion. Learning about religion in an academic, non-proselytizing manner is legal. In addition voluntary religious behavior by anyone , student or otherwise, should be legal as well. I never understand people who say prayer isn’t allowed in school. Of course it is. If I want to bow my head quickly before starting a test, I can. If I want to sit by my locker and pray, I can. If I want to start a voluntary after-school prayer club on school grounds, I should be allowed to. And if students asked me to go sit down briefly with people they have been learning about to experience what they are doing, I would, time allowing, let them. It’s called getting an education.

We are blessed to have many freedoms here in the US and it is bothersome to see how woefully blown out of proportion this non-event has become.

Sportsmanship? #1

I have always been a pretty honest fellow, often to a fault. I’m also a sports fan and an athlete. Being honest has led me to always attempt to play with the utmost sportsmanship in games and races. Now as a coach I’m trying to instill in my players why winning the right way is much more important than winning. I thought I was going to start this series about coaches who lack all the qualities of sportsmanship. However, Derek Jeter decided to go for an Emmy and so this is my first topic.

Derek Jeter is a famous player for the Yankees in Major League Baseball. The other night in a heated game against division rival Tampa Bay he got hit by a pitch, a event that would call for him to go to first base. Except the ball didn’t hit him. As he elaborately spun around the ball hit the knob of his bat, potentially grazing his uniform around the hip area as it bounced away. What did Jeter do? He grasps his elbow in apparent pain. He goes down to first.

Let’s be clear. This is dishonest and cheating. The ball did not hit him where he pretended to be struck. In fact, it basically did not hit him at all. The only reason he benefited was he dishonestly deceived the umpires. A columnist in the Globe noted 15 seconds of instant replay would have revealed this truth. The amazing thing though is not that Jeter cheated but how upfront everyone is about it.

Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay Manager noted, “If our guys had done it, I would have applauded the performance. If our guy does it, I’m very happy if we end up getting the call.”

Jeter himself casually remarked after the game, “It’s part of the game, My job is to get on base.”

I’ve watched pro sports for the better part of 15 years. I am not naive enough to believe that professionals won’t do everything they possibly can to get an edge or win a game. It happens. I know that when I got emotional playing soccer even as a lowly high-schooler I didn’t always play fairly. However cheating is cheating and it should be called out for what it is and at the very least seen as dishonorable.

This isn’t the culture we are living in today however and so it goes. Stay tune for more entries on famous coaches who illustrate everything that is wrong with sports.