Football lessons relevant today

I had lunch the other day with an old friend who was passing through Mount Sterling with his wife.

Back in the day — or as Bruce Springsteen would say, in our glory days — this guy and I played football together at Campbellsville High School.

I'm glad to report that neither of us is so pitiful that 35 years later all we can talk about is our erstwhile teenage jockdom. At our lunch, the subject hardly came up.

But seeing my buddy reminded me how much of my early life revolved around football. I started playing in the fourth grade, when I joined a youth team, and continued my career, such as it was, through junior high and high school.

Coaches used to tell us players that the lessons we were learning on the gridiron would stay with us our whole lives. I'd roll my eyes at one of my teammates and think: ”Not likely. We're kids. It's a game. How much meaning can there be?“

Now, I offer belated apologies to those coaches. They were right. I'm in my 50s, and I'm still using the lessons I learned from football.

Here are some of those truths:

■ If you get thirsty enough, you'll drink anything. My mother raised me to be finicky about the food and drink I consumed. But my high school team practiced in full gear under the 90-degree August sun.

Our only refreshments were a couple of trays of paper cups filled with lukewarm water. The manager always set the trays on the ground near the field, and we players only got one cup of water per practice, near the end of each afternoon's session, when we were drenched with sweat and nearing heat exhaustion.

By that time the water cups would be full of grass, dirt and assorted bugs. But daily I gulped that water down in a single swallow. And was grateful to get it.

■ I learned if you're bad off enough, you'll do lots of things you might not otherwise do. If you imagine you'd never dig through garbage cans, you haven't been hungry enough. When other folks act in ways that strike me as cockeyed, I try to remember they might be in desperate straits.

■ You can't succeed alone. I was lucky enough to play ball alongside several talented guys who earned All-State honors and won major-college scholarships. They were strong, fast, aggressive and cocky.

But I never met a guy — including our first-team All-State quarterback — who could win a game by himself. Even if you're a superstar, you don't score many touchdowns unless the 10 other, average players on your team do their supporting jobs well.

Similarly, you can be a brilliant professor, but you won't go far unless the graduate students who help with your research and the secretary who files your paperwork are competent and kindly disposed toward you.

■ Life's not fair. I was a good player. I spent my formative years eagerly anticipating my junior and senior seasons in high school, when I intended to join the ranks of our school's storied All-Conference and All-State players.

In a practice just before the opening game of my junior season, I wrenched my knee as I was falling to the ground. A split-second later, while I was grasping for my knee, somebody speared me in the back, breaking one of my ribs. Later in the season, I injured both my feet, one of my hands and broke my nose.

The next year, I stayed healthy. But we got new coaches, who said they didn't like my attitude, although they never explained exactly what they didn't like. They benched me as punishment for crimes I didn't know I'd committed.

Those two years cured me of the idea that the cosmos would always treat me justly. I learned that you simply do the best you can, and you don't waste your time worrying about events and people you can't control.

■ You play even when you're hurt. That junior season, when I had my multitude of injuries, I never missed a single practice or any of our 11 games. The head coach said he needed me. So I kept hobbling up and down the field. I kept trying.

Decades later, when my wife was dying of cancer and I was her main caregiver, and as my mom was dying of cancer, too, I showed up at my church on Sundays and Wednesdays and preached my sermons and shook the hands I needed to shake and counseled those who wanted to tell me their problems.

Several people have since said, ”I can't imagine how you did that.“

I can't, either, except I'd learned from football that you're capable of enduring almost anything if you set your mind to it.

You don't quit because you're hurting. You gut it out.