Saturday, November 12, 2016


All of us have experienced it at some point--that awful feeling of sitting on the bench while the rest of your team plays. It happens for various reasons: illness, injury, infraction, incompetence. There you sit, helpless, frustrated and maybe even a little angry and jealous while the game carries on without you. Your absence might go unnoticed, which confirms that you are, in fact, dispensable and replaceable.  That's a demoralizing thought, isn't it? Sometimes your lack of participation drags down the progress, and that can make you feel even worse. Powerless to affect any change, you're stuck cheering from the sideline, hoping other people can fill the gap you leave behind.  You're not there and your team flails and sometimes fails.

Maybe I've mentioned that Team Testosterone plays sports. Sometimes they're good and carry their team, make the winning play, step up as a leader. Sometimes they're on the bench, they're second string and can't make the play, they screw up, foul out or strike out. Regardless of their status, I try to be a good sport mama and cheer on their teammates and act sympathetic afterward.

We caught on a while back that team sports wasn't really Mr. T's sweet spot, but high school athletics are where the musically ungifted can make friends and participate in school culture, so we encouraged him to try out for cross country. (Band or choir or drama are out of the question for Team Testosterone, no talent whatsoever on the melodic front). Cross country is, as fans of The Middle know, the one sport where everyone makes the team. Not that Mr. T's a terrible runner, but there was no chance he'd get cut, right?

Had I known this when I was in high school, I might have tried out.

His freshman year he had a good season. He got his time down significantly, always came in the first third of all the JV runners at every meet, and the older guys on his team were terrific about taking freshmen under their wing and making the new kids feel like they belonged.  Mr. T signed up for track in the spring as a consequence.

His sophomore year we (Mr. T, his coach and his parents) set some higher goals and he actually trained a bit off-season and got his running times in the 19's. A spot on varsity could be within his grasp, provided he trained hard. Happyland High has a very successful and competitive cross country team. It would be no small achievement to make varsity. But to do that he'd have to shave about 2 minutes off his time.

The kid busted his ass. Mr. T ran six days out of seven all summer. He added a bit of weight training. He enjoyed a growth spurt that lengthened his legs and put a teeny tiny bit more meat on his bones. Then his junior season started.

About four guys on his team all ran within 20 seconds of each other, vying for one spot on the varsity squad. Mr. T was one of the four. He didn't make the cut for the first race. He didn't make the cut for the second race. His coach told us, "He's got the ability, but he doesn't have the confidence. He doesn't believe he can do it. It's all mental now." Anyone who has coached anything understands that this is indeed the most difficult part to coach. The mental game.

Something, some little synapse fired, some extra urging triggered his legs and lungs and by golly, that kid made the varsity team for the third meet of his season. Reader, if you could have seen the joyful smile on that kid's face when he came to tell me the times, oh, it was a glorious thing! He stood a little taller, carried himself a bit prouder. He got to wear the uniform, train and line up with the starters.

I watched Mr. T race his first varsity meet like this:

I admit it, I had a few doubts.

Frankly, I wasn't 100% certain Mr. T's success wasn't a fluke. As mentioned, Happyland High's got a competitive team, it wouldn't take much for anyone out of the gate to claim Mr. T's spot for the next meet. That's the thing about cross country, times don't lie. The fastest kids make varsity, even though everyone gets to race. No politics, no fudging stats, no weighing one part of performance against another. Cross country's about as cut-and-dried as competition gets.

Sometimes I'm really glad to be wrong. Reader, I was wrong. Mr. T remained on varsity for another meet. Then another. And he kept driving down his time. He hung steady in the low 19s, then the 18s, , the 17s were within his grasp. His team continued an undefeated surge--both boys and girls, varsity and JV. Mr. D and I jogged from spot to spot on golf courses and around football fields every week, breathlessly watching our kid hit his stride and run past us.  

This illustrates my point about the 4 guys all vying for position--look at them! The white tops are all from Happyland High!
And then in one of the final races of the regular season Mr. T's calf muscles knotted up and quit functioning. He courageously hobbled through a race that, in retrospect, he should've sat out. His coach sent him to the athletic trainer. Mr. T wore ice packs, used crutches, took ibuprofen and stayed off his bad leg. A week went by. He sat out the final race before conference. Teeth gritted, he tried running on the track for practice and even the slowest girls on the JV team were beating him. "Rest," we told him, fairly certain he'd only strained something. His leg would heal in time for the races that mattered.

He sat out conference and cheered on his teammates. His coach left the spot open, hoping Mr. T would be back for sectionals, but alas. No such luck. The kid was sidelined for good. I went and cheered on the runners and watched my son want so badly to be one of them, watched him root on his friends while he limp-ran from spot to spot on the course.  A doctor examined his calf and explained that the knotted muscle was so deep and next to the bone that three more weeks of rest, heat and massage therapy would get him on an exercise bicycle, then in another couple weeks back to running.

I'm thankful, though. He will compete again, this injury is only a hiccup in his career as a runner. He has made the most wonderful friends through this sport, and any parent of older kids can appreciate the peace of mind that comes from your offspring making good choices in friendships. Mr. T and his cross country buddies are some of the absolute nicest kids you'd ever want to meet.  My kid dug deep and discovered he has the ability and competitive spirit to be successful in a sport. It's a blast watching my sons enjoy what they do, watching them succeed at stuff they love is just icing on the cake, right?

Even though he ended the season sidelined, I'm thankful for all that this year of cross country brought him. 


  1. I was breathlesss on his, and your, behalf as I read this. He is awesome, and I'm so glad he gets the affirmation of improvement and success.

  2. Long distance running is such a great character builder. I'm a big fan of individual (team) sports such as running and swimming. Have a great weekend!

  3. That sounds like a really painful injury. I hope it heals up soon.

    The best part of this for me was this: "Mr. T and his cross country buddies are some of the absolute nicest kids you'd ever want to meet."

  4. What an inspiring story. I'm sorry about Mr. T's injury, but what an accomplishment to work his way onto the varsity team like that!

  5. Mr. T is inspiring. As a fellow XC mama, I understand the fears and frustrations -- and also the joy of seeing your kid excel with good friends, good coaching, and good attitudes.
    From one mother of a sidelined XC runner to another, may next year be the best season ever!

  6. Well done! Both of you, actually.


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