Athletic Moves

“He said it seemed like a good idea at the time.” (Steve McQueen in the movie The Magnificent Seven, explaining why his flakey uncle jumped into a big tangle of cactus naked.)

I was considered an athlete in my youth: captain of our high school football and basketball teams; all region, and second team all state in basketball; and played for a year on Brigham Young University’s j.v. team.

I believed that good opinion of my athletic prowess up until the seventh grade. On the football field I was tall enough to catch passes over the defense. On the basketball court I was in my native habitat. For years my favorite pass time had been shooting hoops by myself or joining pick up games wherever I found them. I had some fairly good moves for a twelve year old.

Then spring came and with it a stunning shock to my all-American-athlete self image. The phys ed teacher introduced us to gymnastics. My long, smooth graceful (in my mind) body was now supposed to tuck into a tight ball and roll across the mat or fly through the air. Tucking for me was like trying to turn a grass hopper into a roll up potato bug. My tight tuck was a bent spine with elbows and knees sticking out in several directions.

Jay Brown, Mr. Cool in our class, was not built for football or basketball, but he was Bolshoi Ballet material on the tumbling mat.

Track and field, tennis, and other field events were more of the same for me. Even baseball where I had sometimes had modest success in the sand lot leagues despite my skinny arms and wide strike zone. These challenges convinced me I was not an all around athlete. They also made me grateful our little school didn’t have a golf, soccer, lacrosse, or broom polo team. I longed for autumn, winter and what I considered the real big time sports.

My new hard won humility brought with it a small shaft of insight. People have different gifts and talents. The key to happy relationships is to notice what others do well, encourage them in it, and find joy in their success as well as your own. Nobody is good at everything, but everybody is good at something. I believe that if you could design your own Olympics competition, you could capture the gold. In my case it would be a cross country race up the mountain behind our house where I jog most mornings, and know the trails well. In my Olympic run you would get additional points for each year of your age, how many children and grand children you had, if you took size 14 shoes and your left foot was longer than your right. If I needed to I would award more points if you could play “Malaguena” on the guitar, write left handed, and flip your left thumb out of joint. I think I would have a good chance of taking home the trophy in that race.

“That’s a stupid race,” you might legitimately say. True, but is it more stupid than hitting a boxing glove with a broom, throwing a ball into a fruit basket, or madly sweeping a broom ahead of a rock sliding on the ice? (The beginnings of baseball, basketball and present procedure in the sport of curling.)

But back to the point of this diatribe if there is one. Sports can be entertaining, participating can be healthful, but contrary to my seventh grade perspective they are no measures of the importance of one person over another.

Beyond the enjoyment and the health benefits of sports, are the skills one learns of any practical value? What is the real life usefulness of putting a ball in a basket nailed up on a wall when the basket has a hole in the bottom? How about carrying an inflated pigskin across grass while being pummeled by a stampede of human flesh. How about hitting various kinds and sizes of balls with various shapes of bats, clubs, or rackets, only to have to retrieve the balls or have someone else hurl or swat them back to or at you? Except for fighting through a Black Friday Christmas shopping crowd like a fullback driving for yardage, or sweeping your house clean in 23 seconds if you are a champion curler, most athletic skills don’t seem that practical.

But there is one sport that can be very useful in certain situations. The sport is gymnastics. The situation is when a car with a total idiot at the wheel (a.k.a. an 18 year old male driver) is accelerating like a drag racer down the straight away so the people hanging on to the side of the car will be afraid to jump off.

Fortunately the sport of car hanging has attracted only a small following. To participate you need fingernails of steel, white knuckles, skill in judging speed, and the intelligence of a retarded mealworm. Who would do this and why? Who? Jay Brown and me. Why?*

This is gymnastics on steroids. Procrastinating your jump a nanosecond too late as we did incurs a penalty. Jay hit the ground, took two giant steps across a field, snapped into a tight front roll, spun like a tumbleweed in the wind, and jumped up dusty with only a scratch on his nose. I flew off the driver’s side, took one giant step, made a five point landing on the pavement and skidded to a stop. I picked gravel and tar out of my hands, elbows and one hip bone for weeks.

As every athlete knows, it’s hard to win on the road.

* See Steve McQueen observation