As we approached the last football game of the season, the final one that would determine if we made it to the playoffs, Coach reminded us that, above all, good sportsmanship was highest priority. He also informed us that snow was predicted and told us to prepare for it.
“The worst part about snow,” Lenny said as we went to the locker room, “is if it gets icy then you slip and slide.”
Keith jumped into the conversation. “What is this ‘you’ stuff? You big and clumsy linemen might slip and slide, but I won’t.”
Lenny just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right.”
That night, instead of snow, a slushy rain fell. Early in the morning the temperature dropped and the slush turned to ice. Just before the game there was a light snow. Snow on ice makes it treacherous. It was almost impossible to stand, let alone walk or run, especially with cleats that acted like ball bearings on ice.
As we warmed up we were slipping, sliding, and falling down. At least, everyone was except for Keith. He wasn’t slipping at all. He mocked the rest of us for being clumsy oafs. But his stability didn’t go unnoticed by Coach.
He called us all over. “Keith, let me see your shoes.”
We watched as Keith reluctantly sat on the bench and held them up.
“That’s what I thought,” Coach said.
Keith had fancy shoes with cleats that could be changed out and new ones put in. He had screwed in spiked track cleats, which are against football rules since they can rip into exposed skin.
Coach was not happy with him. “Win or lose, we don’t break rules! Get the right ones in your shoes or you will warm the bench!”
Embarrassed about being found out, Keith switched his cleats. When he joined us on the field he slipped and fell as much as anyone. When it was time for the game to start, we lost the toss and were to receive first. Our player caught the ball and was immediately tackled as the other team hardly seemed fazed by the ice.
We couldn’t make any yardage and soon had to punt. The other team worked their way to a touchdown as we continued to slide and fall and they didn’t. The reason for the difference became quite obvious when the cleats from one of the other team members left a huge, bloody gash the length of my arm. They had spiked cleats.
A timeout was called by the ref to bandage my arm, and he asked the young man for a look at his shoes. Reluctantly the other player complied, and when the ref saw what they were, the young man was ejected from the game. The opposing coach yelled at the boy, saying he had told him not to wear them, but we were pretty sure it was more of a show for the ref than reality. We were positive their whole team was wearing spikes, and it seemed impossible the coach wouldn’t know.
While my arm was being bandaged we complained to Coach about the disadvantage we faced. Coach told us he would prefer we lost than to have us break rules. We would just have to play as smart as we could. We did make one touchdown. On a guard trap play I pulled and took out two defenders when I slipped and crashed. It opened up a clear path for Keith to make a run the length of the field, sliding safely into the end zone.
Though we were playing a superior game in many ways, the disadvantage had us down 21 to 7 at half time. As we took to the field for the second half we were discouraged. But as we kicked to them, the sky started dumping snow. Within minutes a good four inches covered the ice and packed quickly. Suddenly our cleats started finding traction.
With a determination intensified by the events of the first half, we played almost flawlessly. When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard showed us ahead 42 to 21. But more than the win, I will always remember what Coach said when we gathered for the team meeting.
“It’s not the win I’m proud of you for, but the fact that you played with good sportsmanship against an overwhelming disadvantage. Good sportsmanship, after all, is truly the highest prize.”