Sports Illustrated

by Joanie Butman

Every week I wonder what more could I possibly write about. So silly because life offers up a new topic on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The problem is not a lack of material; it is deciding which is most noteworthy. Last week my son broke his collarbone in a lacrosse game. Any mother of a boy knows that a broken bone is not a news breaking event. Boys do the craziest things, and men are just big boys. 

The toys just get bigger, more expensive and more dangerous. If anything, the newsworthy story is probably that so many of them survive to old age.

With the exception of one, my son’s broken bones have all been sports related, which gives them a certain gladiatorial quality. It doesn’t necessarily make them less painful or the recovery easier, but there is definitely a perverse honor being hurt in the arena as opposed to falling on a trampoline or off a ladder. While guys tend to relive every detail of the play which led to the injury, I think the way in which his team and community rallied around him is where the true story lies. To me, it is the most important aspect of team sports. The beauty and value of being part of a team is the way your comrades lift you up in times of pain, stress or discouragement. Each and every time Doug hurt himself, the empathy and encouragement he received from his teammates, coaches, and community was an integral part of his recuperation.

After each of Doug’s injuries, we experienced firsthand the value of fellowship and community. Last week was no exception. We were flooded with emails and phone calls expressing empathy and concern. We discovered that there is an endless array of ways to break your collarbone as we received stories of past accidents. Who knew there were so many bizarre ways to accomplish this unfortunate feat? Two of the best were:

When I was in fifth grade, I was running down the field after practice and my teacher and soccer coach (who was my older brother’s friend and due to babysit me that weekend) challenged me for a ball. I tripped over his foot and broke my collarbone. This was a complete accident and he felt so guilty. He was THE BEST about helping me the next six weeks. Two years ago, I was playing in a pond hockey tourney up north and looked across the breakfast table to see that same teacher. We smiled and hugged. Someone asked, how do you know each other? He replied, "I broke his collarbone when he was my student!"

The night before my prom I fell down a fire escape in the dark at a friend's house on an overnight (thought the door was the bathroom) - a friend of my mother brought over a basket of small gifts. One of the gifts was miniature playing cards. One day I was bored enough to play solitaire in bed. I got bored with that so I started shuffling the cards. To this day, I shuffle cards morning and night to center my thoughts and reach inside for deep thinking, problem solving and genius ideas for my work. My cards will likely be tossed in the casket with me. My point in relaying this bit of personal trivia is to share that no gift is too small or too unimportant to a person who is bedridden with a broken collarbone!

The thing about a broken collarbone is that unless you’ve experienced it, it’s impossible to appreciate how painful it is because you don’t realize how every movement brings on new agony. Add to that the weight of disappointment as summer plans evaporate before your eyes and it’s easy to get disheartened. That’s why hearing stories from people who have endured a similar fate is so encouraging. Whether it be a broken bone or a broken marriage, people like to talk with those who understand their pain, which is why sharing our stories is so important. There is immense healing power in shared suffering. Isn’t that the basis of every support group in existence? The importance of fellowship and community can not be underestimated. We were created for it, and its value is magnified in times of distress.

At early ages most boys share the dream that they are going to become professional athletes. Realistically, that is not going to happen for the majority of them. However, the life lessons they learn from being part of a team will serve them better than any athletic training. As adults, being a team player is a skill they will bring to the family, office, church, or any organization. Few, if any, will continue the actual sport itself into adulthood. The intrinsic value of team sports is to teach the importance and meaning of being part of one body through commitment, hard work, recognition and respect for each member’s abilities and contributions, and respect and obedience for your leader, whether you always agree with him or not. These lessons are the reward I’ve watched my children earn from team sports, not necessarily a trophy for outstanding performance on the field though there have been a few of those as well. These life skills are what will prepare them to become caring, respectful, contributing members of society. As far as I’m concerned, the only trophy that will ever count will never be displayed on any mantel. It will be given for outstanding performance as a person – for recognizing a need and addressing it, for seeing an injustice and correcting it, for doing the right thing simply because you know it’s right, for taking the field when you don’t want to, for getting back in the game after you’ve struck out again, for listening to the coach when you want to do it your way, for finishing the race. Most importantly, regardless of your stats, the rewards that come from patience, perseverance and commitment make you a winner in life. After all, humanity is the most important team any of us will be a part of.

Last week’s injury came during the playoffs so Doug only missed playing the last week of lacrosse. His first broken bone (an elbow) relegated him to the sidelines for an entire summer (two surgeries) and the following football season – not an easy sentence for an 11-yr-old boy. Sometime during the summer, we received an unsolicited offer from his coach to speak to the grand pooh-bahs of football to get permission for Doug to kick for the team because at age 11, they do not tackle the kicker. It’s basically a free play. The thing is, they rarely kick. Because the league has a rule that every player is required to play a minimum of 12 plays per game, Doug would have to be an exception. You have to realize in our town, this was tantamount to requesting special dispensation from the Pope. Furthermore, this offer was extended even though Doug had never kicked a ball before. There were others who could punt stronger and farther than Doug. The coaches knew it, and Doug knew it, which is what made the gesture so meaningful. Not only did the coaches draft Doug despite his obvious handicap, his teammates embraced him as a full member of the team. He was treated no differently than had he been on the field during every play. There is no doubt in my mind, the encouragement Doug received from his coaches and the camaraderie he shared with his fellow players were important ingredients in his recovery.

The lessons learned on the sidelines that year are probably some of the most valuable ones Doug and I will come away with from team sports - lessons of patience, perseverance, commitment, and community. Over all the years of watching Doug play sports, it was the season he didn’t play that I will always remember as his shining moment. I have never felt more love or pride than watching him suit up for every practice and every game with the knowledge that his only role would be to watch and encourage his teammates. As I mentioned, they allowed him to kick for the team; but they rarely kick. Nevertheless, Doug approached every practice and game as if he was an integral part of the team. And I faithfully watched every game with the same attitude. Oddly, I believe he needed my support more not playing than he ever did when he was in the game.

No matter how small our role, it is the way we fulfill it that is our testimony. Regardless of the size or duration of our playing time, we each add value to this game of life. We are all integral parts of the team – even on the sidelines. There is a little-known man named Joseph in the Bible who was given the nickname Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.” Here is an excellent example of a sideliner. Barnabas is known as “one of the most quietly influential people in the early days of Christianity.” That’s the thing about being on the sideline: it is not a limelight position. Your biggest contributions will get little or no attention, but that doesn’t mean they are of no value. One of the most important lessons Doug learned that year was not to get bitter about being relegated to the sideline by injuries. You’d be amazed at what can happen there. Sometimes for growth to occur, it is necessary to be sidelined for a season. It is in the healing that real maturity takes seed. When your only option is to heal your injury so you can get back in the game or quit, you discover what you’re made of and the source of your strength. The choice to get better or bitter is always ours.

In anticipation of her upcoming graduation, my daughter was reminiscing through her 8th grade yearbook this week, and she pointed out something one of Doug's lacrosse captains said in answer to the question, “How would you like to be remembered?” His response was, “As the guy who tried to cheer people up.” I can’t think of a more noble aspiration, and without a doubt he has achieved that goal both on and off the field. He suffered his own share of injuries during his high school athletic career so he understood the pain and disappointment of being sidelined, which probably made him even a better captain. He was awarded All American in lacrosse this week, but I will never remember him for his athletic skill. The way he, his co-captain and the older boys on the team mentored Doug is worth far more in my eyes. “Being the one who cheers people up” has more lasting value and will carry him through life in a way that no athletic award can compete with.

In closing, I wouldn’t want to wish hardship on anyone, but can guarantee you will be afflicted soon or later. We all have weak moments when we need the safety net of community to catch us and keep us in the fold. And when they come, may you be strengthened by the encouragement of others so that you, in turn, can choose to do the same. Broken bones, broken dreams, broken spirits, broken hearts - there is always someone in need of encouragement; you never have to look far.

Choose to be the one who lifts people up!