MEMORIES OVER MEDALS

As the NFL season approaches, Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison gave us a refreshing NFL headline that let us escape the black hole that is Deflategate.

He recently took away participation trophies from his 8- and 6-year old sons and told them that they can “earn” real ones.

Keep in mind that this is a longtime NFL player with a competitive nature 10 times higher than the rest of us, but I agree with the premise.

Kids older than 5 shouldn’t be getting trophies unless they get at least third place in a tournament. Top three in a consolation bracket doesn’t count.

Sure, I played a bunch of sports as a kid: Baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer, even a year of flag football. I remember, when I was 10 years old, I played my last game of organized soccer.

We lost 10-0 in the last game of the season and I was awarded a trophy at the team banquet a week later for simply “being on the team.”

The first thing I wanted to do when I got home was toss the trophy in the trash. We lost our last game and I’m pretty sure we won maybe two games that season.

Another memory sticks out from when I was 8 and playing baseball. I went in to pitch for my two innings that game.

My arm was terrible and I had no future as a pitcher, so I threw really slow.

I struck out three batters on nine pitches.

The second inning, the team adjusted and hit two singles right away.

The third batter hit a ground ball right to the third baseman, who calmly stepped on third, threw to second, and then the second baseman threw to first to complete the triple play.

Those were the only two innings I ever pitched and my ERA remained 0.00.

The memory of those two innings is worth way more than any trophy I’ll ever get.

I remember another baseball season when I was 11 or 12. It was a close game in the sixth inning and the coach, having realized my lack of speed and terrible arm strength, which made me a terrible fit for the outfield and moved me to my favorite position- second base. The batter hit a line drive right at me and I was able to get my glove up quick enough to grab it. It was my one fielding highlight ever. The next inning, I took one for the team, a fastball that found the bone in my left arm. We were down by one and I decided to try and be a hero and get myself into scoring position with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. I didn’t get any faster between the sixth and seventh inning. I was out and it wasn’t even close. I took my helmet, which was about three sizes too big and slipped down over my eyes as I ran, off and just sat on second base with my knees to my chest and my arms across my knees. I stared off into space before lying face down in the dirt- and cried like a baby. I had been what you call a role player, a background guy on all the sports teams I’ve played on. When I finally had the chance to get in the spotlight and be a hero, I felt like I blew it. At the time, the thought of letting my team down shook me hard.

I don’t remember what my coach said to me, but the opposing coach walked over, before even talking to his team, picked me up off the ground, put his hand on my shoulder and said “Hey keep your head up. You showed a lot of guts and effort on the play and tried to help your team win the game. I liked your hustle.” Although I probably didn’t show it at the time, I really appreciated that. Once again, I don’t remember if I got a trophy for that or not. The memory is worth more.

I have a 6-year-old cousin who is already five seasons deep in soccer and his second in t-ball. He’s gotten a medal for every season when, for the most part, they don’t even keep score. His dad told me that he doesn’t really care if he gets a medal anyway.

He also told me he wants to take a break from soccer and try competitive swimming, even if he doesn’t get a medal.

That’s the right attitude to have.

His younger brother, who is 4 and just received his first participation medal, was super excited because now he had one like his brother.

That’s fine. It’s fine to do early. Kids winning a special award for being named camp MVP or team MVP or most improved are great.

The other exception is running a marathon or a 5K. I feel like I deserve a medal for running a mile around the track at the YMCA, so someone should definitely get recognized for attempting to complete and competing in a long distance endurance event.

Marshall’s Youth Soccer league doesn’t give out participation medals for just playing in the league. The U13 team got a trophy for winning the league and then winning the district tournament. They advanced on to the state tournament and didn’t place in the top 3, so they left without a medal. They didn’t get a medal for participating.

Marshall’s YMCA youth leagues don’t go past fourth grade. While the kids get a certificate for participating in the league, teams are only awarded tournament trophies if they get first or second place. Even then it’s just one trophy for the whole team.

At some point, as Harrison said, kids have to learn trying your best isn’t going to be good enough some days.

The sooner the better, I say, within reason.

The Minnesota State High School League gives state trophies out to fifth place. Personally, I think we should stop after third place.

As I got older, I realized that my competitive spirit far outweighed my athletic ability. I have many fond memories playing sports as a kid, but none of them had to do with trophies.

If you win a tournament or a championship of some kind, great, display your trophy or medal proudly. Sports, however, are more important than getting a trophy. I learned something with each one of those experiences. I didn’t take any of my trophies to college with me. Looking back on it, they don’t matter. A trophy didn’t tell me that sometimes things don’t go your way- like when I got caught stealing second base. I remember my three strikeouts and the triple play without the help of a trophy; and I certainly don’t want a trophy for a season in which the team I was on won two games and it ended with a 10-0 massacre.

Let’s keep the memories and lessons and lose the medal.