by aaron a abeyta
I suppose there are several reasons why I get to the field so early, reasons why I get out of my truck and, as if by instinct, walk toward the north end zone. It is how I do my penance, why I coach and why I love each of you. Let me explain.
I have always been the first one to the field; it’s my thing. Even when I played I took pride in beating the coaches to practice, but that’s not why I coach. My reasons for that are complicated and not easily defined, but the simplest way to explain it would be to tell you about the second guy to practice. I won’t mention his name because I don’t want to hurt his family, or perhaps it just hurts me a bit too much to mention his name. I will call him X, and he was a good guy, a year ahead of me in school. He wouldn’t get to practice early to warm up, throw the ball or put his pads on. He would get to practice early so he could smoke before the coaches arrived. Everyone on the team knew what he was doing and we made jokes about his glazed eyes and how he would mask the smell with cigarette smoke. He always parked at the north end of the field. I never suspected that he might be in pain or that he needed or lacked for anything; truth be told, he may have been perfectly okay. The real issue was that I did nothing. I’m not talking about snitching or some elaborate knight in shining armor bullshit. I simply did nothing, absolutely nothing ,and a year or so later he had taken his own life.
I’m not telling you this as a means to forgiveness or as some forgotten or belated apology. I’m simply telling you all of this because sometimes football and life intersect in imperceptible yet powerful ways.
All season your coaches have asked you to be perfect. We have yelled, asked nicely, shown and explained and in terms of wins and losses you have been perfect. But I guess we are all looking for something bigger; all of you too are looking for this very same thing.
The other day as I was walking toward the north end zone to offer my regards and apologies to X, it occurred to me why this team is so great and why it is that we push you so hard. I’ve been under the misconception all season that the Sanfords, La Vetas, Granadas, Elberts, Daysprings and Merinos were the opponent. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We are perfect and we strive for perfection, not because of some ideal image of what a champion should be, but because of the opponents we overcome on a daily basis. Put another way, it is our imperfections, our struggles, our daily lives, that make this team amazing and therefore perfect.
We are a family, all of us connected in ways that extend beyond city limits, school walls, team pride and cheering fans. If you have ever come home to a dinner of plain rice and beans because there wasn’t anything else, then you have already beaten Granada. If the lights and the phone have been shut off because there was no money left to pay for those things then you have already beaten Elbert or Sanford; if you’ve come home to a yard of weeds and packed earth, you’ve already beaten Merino. If you’ve ever wallowed in a jail cell removed from real light and air and your only wish was a simple one, to run and run and stop at your heart’s content, then you have already beaten Dayspring. If you have broken bones and waited a long year to join your family on the field, if you have pissed blood and waited for your kidneys to work, if you have ever lost brothers, sisters or children, if you have ever been abandoned by your family, buried a family member before their time, found solace in a bottle or a joint, helped your drunken friends or family members to bed, watched your friends and classmates disappear from your life and into the oblivion of drugs, alcohol and dropout status; if you have ever been cast into fatherhood before you were ready and if you have ever been made to piss in a cup to prove your worth, if you have ever sat invisible, unknown, and uncared for in a classroom; if you have ever stayed up into the thin hours of night waiting for your brother or father to come home; if you have never really known your father or mother and if you have ever been called a dirty Mexican or made to fear that everyone you love could be sent away on the whim of a politician or police officer; if you have ever been called a loser or quitter; if you have ever found yourself wishing that people wouldn’t drink so much, or if you have suffered through the desert of divorce and betrayal; if you have fallen away from your heritage and language; if you have ever been made to feel inferior, or if you have ever had your heart broken, or tasted defeat in the shadow of a corn field in eastern Colorado, or suffered through an interminable night in a place in the middle of the Big Gypsum Valley where three of your brothers were sent to the hospital; if you have suffered through any or many of these, if you have borne the burdens of grown men and women before your time, then you have already won. You are perfect, not because you beat other teams on the gridiron, you are perfect because your imperfections have not beaten you. Your opponents for the next four weeks are these little blips on the radar of what you have already overcome and all that you have defeated.
I’m not saying that the games will be easy simply because of your hardships. The world is full of people who live in their own lament, convinced that theirs is the only tragedy on earth. I know this is not any of you. Each of you is brave beyond words and the guy lined up across from you each week and for the rest of your life is your opportunity to show your courage, to let your imperfections feed your perfection.
Many of you will never come this way again. Football and success are fleeting, and I can assure you of several things. It is the lie of a broken dream that is hardest to forget, and it is the things you loved in vain because you did not do them that stay with you like a tattoo of regret. I wish I would have been wiser, twenty years ago, when I stepped onto our field. But I suppose wisdom is not meant entirely for the young. Instead, you have been given strength, speed, deep and powerful hearts; you have been given each other, family on every side of you. It’s true, I believe in God and I believe in blessings. I truly believe that we have been blessed, not with football prowess, though we have that, not with the cheers of our community, though we have those too. Our blessings are less tangible and measurable than all of that. It won’t be found on the scoreboard or stat sheet. Eventually those numbers will fade, and exact scores and yards gained will disappear like smoke in the wind. What will last is how this team, a band of brothers and one brave sister approached the great opponents of doubt and imperfection and came away unbeaten, stronger for their failings and their weaknesses.
A favorite poet of mine says that “hope is a thing with feathers” and she may be right, but for me, hope is a thing with deep roots of pain, regret, loss, hardship, and struggle. It is 33 men and one woman who board the bus or take the field with one goal, to be there for each other, to coach and play for each other and leave nothing in doubt, that their greatness will be known for generations.
They will say that this group was perfect, that this group was undefeated, but they will not know what we know, that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger in the broken places.” The quote does not say that all are stronger; it only promises that many are. We are only a few, but we are all stronger in the broken places. Perfect because we play for one another, perfect and undefeated long before the game commences, perfect long before your coach gets to an empty field and paces north toward his ghosts, toward the end zone and a giant rock that marks our strength. We were perfect long ago, before the record, the scoreboard or the paper said it was so, and now we have been blessed with the opportunity to prove ourselves.
There are four teams and thirty two opponents in your way. May each of them know what I and your coaches know. Champions live and play here, on the fields of Troy, here on the high llano of our home, here surrounded by the broken things and the fallen things. May they know that we are made perfect despite the broken and fallen things. May they know that champions took the field one autumn and drew from their defeated past and sometimes tragic present to overcome every obstacle that stood in their way.
Each of you, in your own specific way, is already a champion. I love each of you, and I know that you already know this, but your coaches believe in you, in your goodness, strength, perseverance and talent. All that is left is the doing, the final proof, the champion’s word, the champion’s goal, the champion’s victory.
Coach a.aaron a. abeyta is the author of three books. He is Associate Professor of English at Adams State College. Among his many interests, he is also the head coach of Antonito High School, his alma mater.