Among the many great ‘Peanuts,’ strip drawn by the immortal Charles Schulz, one of my favorites is the one in which Linus is telling Charlie Brown about the ending of a football game. I’m paraphrasing, but he says something like: “It was amazing Charlie Brown, our team was behind with one second left in the game and we were on the one-yard line and the quarterback threw a pass all the way down the field and the receiver caught it and ran in for a touchdown. Everyone was screaming and yelling and celebrating. You should have seen it!”
At that point Charlie Brown looks at Linus and says: “How did the other team feel?”
That strip ran through my head right after the final play of Navy’s 28-27 victory over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem on Saturday night. Needless to say I was thrilled for Navy and enjoyed watching the players and coaches pour onto the field to celebrate after Wake’s final pass had fallen incomplete ending a wildly entertaining (and, for the record, poorly officiated) football game.
Then I looked at the Wake players, some sitting on the field in shock, others walking slowly across the field to congratulate the Midshipmen. I felt it even more when the Demon Deacons followed the Mids to the far corner of the field to stand at attention for the playing of the Navy alma mater. Wake’s always been a class school and Jim Grobe is a class coach. My guess is his players are the same way. This was their second consecutive loss when the opponent scored in the game’s last 30 seconds.
And so I thought of Linus and Charlie Brown.
Of course endings like that take place in sports all the time. For every Mookie Wilson, there’s a Bill Buckner and for every Bobby Thompson, there’s a Ralph Branca. You feel it more acutely though for non-pros—which might eliminate some big-time college football and basketball programs from the mix. I certainly felt it in Indianapolis last April when Gordon Hayward’s last second shot rolled off the rim and Butler missed beating Duke in the national championship game by exactly that much.
Sure, I was happy for my alma mater and happier for Mike Krzyzewski—my feelings about my alma mater as most people know are decidedly mixed—but watching the Butler players and thinking about what a victory for them would have meant in the basketball and sports pantheon, I couldn’t help but feel some disappointment.
But that’s what makes sports so compelling. We all feel terrible for Brooks Conrad—even a San Francisco Giants fan has to feel badly for him even if he’s happy his team won on Sunday—but the way Conrad got to that moment is a dramatic story in itself. Almost every day and certainly ever week, stories play out across the country and the world that we should care about even if no one involved is going to any Hall of Fame. Athletes who are worthy of our attention, our support and, in some cases, our sympathy when they come up just short, compete because they love to compete; because they want to win but also because they understand that losing may hurt but it isn’t—shouldn’t be—the end of the world.
Maybe that’s why I get so angry at the rich and famous who never take responsibility for their actions—on or off the playing fields. I’m a sucker for underdogs and for those who try like hell even when they know they have virtually no chance of winning. We all are to some degree. Even in Masters swimming, when one of the older swimmers comes chugging in at the end of a long race well behind everyone else, everyone in the pool gives them a round of applause.
Many swimmers call it, ‘the dreaded sympathy clap.’ I got one the first time I tried to swim a 200 butterfly as a Masters swimmer. I almost didn’t finish. My stroke was so bad the final length of the pool that a friend of mine, seeing the stroke and turn judge eyeing me closely said, “he’s still legal.” The stroke and turn judge said to him, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to DQ him, he’s already suffered enough.”
God knows that was true.
So please don’t ask me to lose any sleep over the fact that the SEC might not get a team to the national championship game this year. I might feel some sympathy for the players, but certainly not for the coaches, the administrators or the fans. I don’t feel a lot of sympathy for any of the so-called big-time schools. Alabama losing to South Carolina isn’t a whole lot different than the choking dog Green Bay Packers losing to the Washington Redskins. (Am I bitter? You bet).
Other than the celebrity photos from each of the six Bruce Edwards Celebrity Golf Classics, I have one photo in my office with an athlete in it. It’s from the 1995 Army-Navy game. That was the year that I researched ‘A Civil War,’ and it was taken right after the playing of the two alma maters. In the photo, Andrew Thompson, Navy’s defensive captain that year, is crying on my shoulder. A few minutes later, he cried on the shoulder of Jim Cantelupe—who was Army’s defensive captain that year.
Just in case you think that Thompson wasn’t a tough guy because he shed a lot of tears after Army drove 99 yards to win that game, 14-13, you should know that he is currently a major in The Marine Corps who has served in Iraq. Believe me, you’d want him on your side in any sort of fight. You would also be proud to call him a friend.
My point is this: We all celebrate victories—our own and those of individuals we root for and teams we root for. God knows I will celebrate if the Islanders ever win another Stanley Cup or the Mets ever win another World Series. (Not holding my breath on either). But when we celebrate—especially when the competition involves kids—we should all pause to think about what Charlie Brown said to Linus. On Saturday night, as happy as I was for Navy, I couldn't help but wonder how the other team felt.