Skieologians: Me n’ Neely
Here’s to another conclusion of high school sports
I checked my watch, then glanced back at the slowly congregating orange mob of tearful teenagers. As Vail Mountain Schools girls soccer members gathered for a final huddle, processing their season-ending playoff loss, I pondered two starkly contrasting thoughts. The journalist in me impatiently desired to quickly nab my necessary quotes so I could punch up the story before the approaching nightly deadline. Concurrently, the moment evoked the memory of my own interscholastic finality, albeit 12 years prior, with surprising clarity. I watched as coach Bob Bandoni had one more moment with his senior-laden team.
Bodies trembled and noses sniffled. I felt absorbed in the aura of some unmade movie’s grand crescendo, half-expecting an orchestra to fade us away with tranquility. My daydream snapped back to a harsh reality as the huddle broke and I watched players turn and walk away to parents, siblings, a change of clothes and a ride home.
Just like that.
The world was moving on — not serenely dissolving into life’s next transition — and so were they. Just then I realized I was about the same age as Neely Crenshaw.
American novelist John Grisham is more known for his legal thrillers — “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Rainmaker” — major grossing movies and part of 28 consecutive No. 1 fiction bestsellers. Nestled in his canon is a tale titled “Bleachers,” a 160-page pamphlet about the small town of Messina and their high school coach, Eddie Rake.
Though reciting his resume was a daily ritual for citizens at the local mom-and-pop cafe (418 wins, 62 losses, 13 state titles, and a seven-year undefeated streak), Rake was simultaneously loved and reviled by his players, the greatest of which was Neely Crenshaw. As the 33-year-old protagonist struggled to cope with his ephemeral ‘glory days,’ I was reminded once again of the nature of prep sports.
With their coach waiting to die from cancer, Crenshaw, along with hundreds of former players across three decades, reconvened throughout the novel on the school bleachers. Memories and lessons were shared. The process of reliving his high school career, which ended in the most dramatic of ways (I won’t give everything away), was paradoxically painful and introspectively reinvigorating: Crenshaw wished he had never seen a football but also longed for the days when he was everyone’s hero.
My number was never retired, but an obvious resonance kept my bedside light on past midnight as I read to the end. I connected with the tough coach and his old-school methods of instilling bravery, resilience and work ethic. I saw myself in the genesis of every rural kid’s sports journey — sandlot games and backyard drills — the countless stories and images of times with your teammates, and the swift flood of memories from walking by your old stomping grounds.
I’ve spoken with many world-class athletes and coaches over the past month about the “increased professionalization” of youth sports. In the sports Vail is known for, there is no turning back from this reality, so it seems.
Every day, highly-prized kids transfer, graduate early, and, figuring they hold all of the cards, shun the idea of any possible benefit or merit to parental or coaching authority. Looking to capitalize on themselves, they selfishly search for “the best situation” for themselves, and in doing so generally fail to savor high school for what it is: The one time you go from kindergartners learning how to read to seniors learning to play “for the name on the front of the jersey” — all with the same group of assigned childhood friends.
You didn’t choose the kid you met on the swingset, the person who always had great halloween costumes, the boy with the curly hair or the girl next door. Part of this bond’s mystery exists within the starting guard’s heroic halftime speech in the state final, sure, but most of it was forged back in third grade when — and no one saw this — he stood up to the class bully on your behalf, … or he spilled chocolate milk on his pants at lunch and earned a lifelong nickname for doing so.
Part of me is saddened to watch soccer, basketball, football, etc., increasingly require a year-long commitment to traveling tournaments and expensive private coaches instead of relying on persistent individual boys and girls independently honing their abilities in their own backyards and driveways. While the former might increase our Olympic standing, it’s the latter, in my belief, that leads to members of society who understand the meaning of a job well-done, who know how to work through adversity, believe in themselves and lead strong families. What does our country need more of today?
Aside from all of that, the poignant realization that sank into my gut as the VMS huddle broke up was this: Prep sports is fleeting … for everyone.
The best thing that could have ever happened to me, for all of the sacrifice and sheer time I gave to basketball from the moment I could walk until I graduated, was having my senior-year team finish .500 and lose in the first round of the section playoffs (which every team automatically makes).
Sitting on the bench, watching the clock tick away, I thought about all of those early summer mornings and late nights in my front yard. I remembered that four-hour day circling the cul-de-sac as a 5-year-old, refusing to come inside until I could dribble between my legs. Washing my blackened fingertips became a nightly occurrence. I remembered the cold middle school March afternoon when I sunk 106 consecutive free throws, the result of a monastic shooting ritual forced on me by my shortness and slowness. All those bus rides with friends, training journals and goals, pregame nerves and timeout goosebumps with the game on the line … all of that … for this?
One couldn’t construct a more anonymous exit for our five seniors who survived the harsh reality of necessary cuts in a school with 1,700 students. Then again, even those who finish 27-0 and go out on top eventually think the same thought I did when I removed my sweaty jersey for the last time and gave it back to our team manager that dreadful day:
“Well, there’s that.”
You change into civilian clothes, get off the bus and reenter society like everybody else. It’s at that moment that you realize sports only ever had one purpose. If you don’t know it, I probably couldn’t preach it into you (something about transcendent values, lifelong skills and meaningful relationships), but as the resident Skieologian, it’s probably my duty to pray that somewhere out there, coaches, athletes and parents are doing what they can to preserve it.
Here’s to another great year of high school sports.
Keep on striving.