Winning, at anything, is not normal. There can only be one winner from all the teams who start.
This seems like a simple concept, but the more I think about it, the more it matters. Winning is not the status quo. Of all the teams in a conference, only one will win the conference. Only one will be a state champion. Only one team each year wins the Super Bowl or the College Football National Championship game. Of everybody who plays something, there will only be one winner. One. Uno. Singular.
Winning in football is even more abnormal. It takes sacrifice, hard work, and putting team goals before individual goals. It takes discipline. It takes unselfishness. It takes everybody to stay healthy. It takes a team to come together. It takes massive, massive team chemistry.
In Idaho, 12 teams enter the 5A state playoffs. We lost last Friday in the second round to a good Rigby team, 35–28. It was a well-played game and probably a very exciting one to watch for a fan. We had our chances and just didn’t get it done.
We were close.
Of those 12 teams that enter the playoffs, only one team will finish with a win. Every other team will lose the last game. We lost our last game. We lost our last game last year, too. And the year before. And the year before.
We have been in the playoffs for the last 13 years. We played in three state championship games and won one of those. That means we lost two state championship games. That means that for 12 of the last 13 years, I have ended my season the same way: with seniors in tears in a musty, sweaty, stinky, disheveled locker room, walking around with blank looks, sweat and tear-stained eye black dripping off their cheeks, and a profound sense that something has changed in their world.
The varsity locker room after the last game of the year is a tough deal. It is one of my least favorite places, even though I respect the hell out of it. I know I hate it because it makes me remember my high school and college locker room after my last respective games. The emotion of it makes me uncomfortable as it forces me to remember my growing up.
I remember this lesson in theory and practice. In theory, I knew it was my last game before it was even played. I knew a stage was ending and something would change. However, until after the game, the enormity of it never became a possibility. There was a game plan. There was an opponent. There was a team to focus on. There were my teammates to enjoy and work with. There was a battle to be fought.
After, there is this crushing reality that you will never be in that spot again. Life has changed in a bad way and you will never be able to return to where you were just a few minutes before. It was one of my first — but unfortunately not last — lessons in chasing that fleeting August sunset that dominates so many themes in our lives and keeps Jay Gatsby reaching for that elusive Green Light, year after year.
It’s one of the few Rites of Passage I still see in our world, and it brings tears to my eyes to simply write about it. It is one of the most visceral, emotional scenes that the average outsider who doesn’t play football would never know.
I see this every year. Every year, I can see it in our players’ faces that their innocence is ending. They feel this sense of never being in this place again. They know that they will never go to battle in the same jerseys with the same fellas ever again.
Big, massive, young men, ugly-crying, holding onto each other. Some of the best athletes in the school — in the state — big bodies, huge muscles, usually bloody and taped after a game, absolutely sobbing, unable to talk. These young men make their way around to position coaches, shaking hands and thanking them.
They awkwardly look around, not sure of what to do, but cognizant enough to know that THIS place, THIS thing, is real and requires something that they can’t quite identify. Usually, the players don’t even know what they are thanking the coaches for, but they know there is something happening. Something has changed, and all the coaching is now over. And if the coaching is over, that means the playing is over.
I respect the locker room after a playoff loss. The emotion of it always catches me by surprise and I have to feel it and let it happen. Most years, my own emotions are high after this game and in this locker room. My season has just ended too, and I always have to remind myself internally this isn’t about me. It is about them. My son is a Junior player on our football team and I had to teach him this year that this wasn’t about him. This cycle perpetuates. I know that at some point, this locker room will be about him and that breaks my heart for him.
The difference between winning and losing in the playoffs is so thin. Sometimes, it is literally a game of inches. We lost a game this weekend. We didn’t make enough plays and the other team did. That is usually what happens when good teams play each other — one of them will make that one or two big plays they need to make. The other team will have the ball glance off their hands and come up a little short. The block gets missed. The tackle gets missed. The ball pops up into the air and in to the arms of a wrong-colored jersey.
Winning is not normal. Twelve teams enter the playoffs and only one will finish with a win. Eleven other teams will end with a locker room of wet eyes, sweaty hugs, and sweaty handshakes. Every other team will wish they had a chance to make that one more play, that one more block, that one more catch, that one more tackle.
And the juniors will start their off-season, knowing in theory that this will happen to them next year — but they won’t believe it until next year when the final whistle blows and the locker room door closes on their childhood.