Lessons from a Winless Career

Some of you have seen the new movie that recently came out about the De La Salle High School football program right here in Concord.  It’s called When the Game Stands Tall and brings to life the incredible winning streak that lasted over 12 years: 151 straight victories.  That is the longest winning streak in sports history – any sport and any level.  I haven’t seen the movie just yet, but I read the book, and I remembered how all along the way, as Coach Bob Ladouceur built his seemingly invincible national powerhouse, he emphasized purpose and significance rather than streaks and titles. These are important lessons for young people to learn, especially early in life.

My high school football experience taught me different lessons.  You see, I played for Concord High School and we were pretty much the exact opposite of De La Salle.  My junior year, with me as the starting quarterback, we were 0-10.  In fact, I don’t think we ever even had a lead that year.  There was one game that was close, and as the clock wound down we were only a couple points behind and marching toward the end zone – that is until I threw an interception that was run back for a touchdown, sealing yet another defeat.  I was a terrible quarterback on a horrible team.

I recently stumbled upon an article by a guy by the name of Josh Keefe entitled, “I Was the Worst High School Quarterback Ever.”  He explains that in his career he was 0-23 as the quarterback for a small high school in Maine.  His 0-23 record was actually part of a longer streak of 41 consecutive losses endured by his school. 

Like my time under center, Keefe acknowledges that all those losses were not all his fault.  Losing is a total team effort.  Like him, I didn’t have a lot of help either.  There were times when I would drop back to pass and there seemed to be defensive lineman waiting there to tackle me!  Josh says, “I avoided hulking lineman, pump-faking every other step and spinning away from would-be tacklers.  I played, essentially, like somebody avoiding the bulls in Pamplona.  And more often than not, the bulls ran me down.”  Sadly, that sounds eerily familiar.

While I can now look back on those days and my winless career and chuckle, I still feel a kind of low-grade, stomach-knotting despair when I think about all those losses.  While they don’t sting nearly as much as they once did, I can still feel those failures – and the feeling that I, personally, was a failure. 

But now, years later, occasionally blinded by nostalgia, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there was something to be gained from never winning.  In his article, Keefe offers this:

Life is a hopeless fight against loss and failure.  We are all going to die, as will all of our loved ones.  Getting beaten continuously on the football field, sometimes brutally so, illuminates this existential struggle.  It teaches you to find joy in what you’re doing, and the people you are doing it with, in spite of the inevitable outcome.

As a culture, we try to make every kid feel like a winner.  But I wonder if maybe we should also give every child a task that he or she will fail at again and again, along with teammates to fail with.  There are certainly valuable lessons to be learned – like the value of putting up a good fight and never quitting; or that trying and failing to achieve a long-shot dream is better than settling for a passionless life.  They might learn how to lose, which is a valuable skill that this life provides no shortage of opportunities to put into practice.  Sadly, though, very few people know how to do it well.

Looking back, I’m sort of proud of all the losing I did.  In the end I think it taught me more about life than winning ever could.