I enjoy visiting my friend Bart over a cup of tea in the early hours of a Starbucks’ Saturday morning. I was working on my book, crafting a story, when Bart mentioned that his son played on the St. Francis freshman football team. The team had beat Harvard/Westlake 11-0 the previous afternoon.
He explained that at the end of the game, St. Francis was within a few yards of another score. However, instead of crossing Westlake’s goal, the Golden Knights opted to take a knee, letting the clock run out. “What a classy thing to do,” said Bart.
Ironically, I was writing a story about a neighborhood football game that happened many years ago in the Bronx. The Golden Wakefield Bullets had challenged the Bell Bombers to a do-or-die grudge match.
The Bombers had uniforms, pre-designed plays and a coach. When they took the field, they looked magnificent in their black helmets.
I played for the Bullets. No one thought we had a chance. Most of us didn’t even have helmets. Our coach, Johnny Letchi, was a World War II veteran who suffered from frequent bouts of depression.
But there was something special about the Bullets and after 48 years, I still remember that Saturday afternoon in Van Courtland Park.
The Bombers beat us, 63 to 0. With seconds left in the game they were on our 5-yard line and were ready to score again. A 63-point margin was not good enough. Their only intent was complete annihilation.
The moment of victory is much too short to live for. Victory is a flash in time that dissipates quickly. After the pats on the back, what are the players left with? What have they learned about character? What have they learned about themselves?
What we learn from the game is not the product of winning or losing, but how we lose or win and how we’ve changed because of it, and what we take away from it to apply to other segments of our life.
I admire Ernie Rojas, the head coach of St. Francis’ freshman football team and his assistants — coaches Dowling, Washington, Carroll, Barkley and Chang. Taking a knee and letting the clock run out was a classy thing to do. The kind of young men that they are molding will be better people because these coaches passed their way.
We all want to leave our mark upon our endeavors. The voice of the human spirit calls us to do so. However, when coaches teach their players that domination is better than winning, it becomes the voice of the ego.
Aristotle tells us, “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids.” I would expect such a perspective from St. Francis.
Back to my story: With seconds left, the Bombers were threatening another score. Because of our refusal to succumb, there’d be no quarter given to the Golden Wakefield Bullets. Coach Letchi substituted Frankie Gerard. Frankie entered our defensive huddle holding a small, folded piece of paper, perhaps a last-minute strategy from Coach Letchi. When we unfolded the paper we read, “Don’t Quit!”
Both teams realized that the outcome of the game would not be a product of the score, but whether the Bombers would score a final touchdown. Each time they ran, the Bullets held them. It was fourth and goal. The ball was snapped, both lines surged and the Bombers fell short.
The Bullets were jubilant, hugging and rejoicing. The Bombers walked off the field and found no joy in their victory.
There were no pictures taken of the Golden Wakefield Bullets, no trophies, no medals, just a few thoughts scribbled in my journal in 1963.
Over time, the tallies of scores become meaningless. All we are left with is the type of person we became simply by taking a knee.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.