“I wish I could jump”
This column is about sports, grandchildren, talent and courage. I don’t normally reveal the topics in the first sentence, but I want you to read until the very end. Hopefully, I will have done justice to some of the amazing things I experienced these past four days.
This was a weekend Mary Lou and I were taking our three grandchildren to Auburn to experience a variety of sporting events. Unfortunately, our granddaughter Laura tested positive for the flu, so it was just the boys that made the trip.
Henry is nine and Will is four. Will adores his older cousin and Henry is a good sport in playing with Will. In some ways, it tugged at my heart as I watched Henry take care of Will in the crowds, crossing the street, and doing justice to the hero worship that can come from a four year old.
Friday night we attended their first gymnastics meet in the Auburn Arena as Auburn lost in a very close match to Kentucky. It was the event that I was the most worried about holding their interest, but I was wrong.
Henry quickly figured out the scoring and they both watched in amazement as the girls on both teams did themselves proud on four different events. The music and lighting were like a rock concert. It was high energy and to my amazement, there were thousands of people in attendance.
How does an athlete first do a backwards flip on a beam no wider than your foot? What motivates someone to do a blind reverse flip, if there is such a thing, on the bars for the first time? The beauty and grace of these athletes awed both grandparents and grandchildren at the same time, which is no small feat.
The Auburn versus LSU basketball game on Saturday night was the main attraction. Auburn is ranked first in the SEC and are off to their best start in almost 20 years. Students lined up hours before tipoff to get the best general admission seats. Standing room only seats purchased for $5 were selling for $70 and up.
Auburn came out on fire and made their first five three point shots. They won by 25 and it could have been more. Every time Auburn scores 90 points or more in a game, our Hardee’s restaurant in Auburn gives everyone in the Arena a free sausage biscuit the next morning. It was quickly apparent we might have to make an extra 9,000 biscuits the next day.
It was loud, almost too loud for the boys. Their fidgeting was not helped by the fact that the popcorn machines were working at half capacity. It was almost halftime before each of them had their own box to consume.
We saw athletes with the ability to consistently make long three pointers, impossible drives to the basket, and the always popular dunk shots. This was not the basketball of my own youth. The talent surpasses that tenfold, or more likely ten times ten.
Thankfully, Laura recovered from the flu and made her final appearance in the church league basketball game on Monday. While they lost to an older team, they played with energy and flair, their ponytails bouncing with every shot. Laura made a basket and that was all I needed to see.
Which brings me to the final sporting event of these four days. In this case, I have actually saved the best for last. Mary Lou and I took Henry and Will to the Auburn Wheelchair Basketball game against Missouri on Saturday morning. There were ten teams playing in the tournament.
Our friends, Mark and Annette Burkett, had told us of this incredible team the week before. We took our grandsons hoping for them to be inspired, but in fact it was Mary Lou and I who walked away in awe.
These are men and women that are disabled for a variety of reasons. The causes for the loss of the use of their legs varies from accidents, illness, and unfortunately war. Regardless of the cause, they played with passion, aggression, and a competitive spirit that we can only aspire to emulate.
Auburn played an amazing team from the University of Missouri. Mizzou was good, making blocks and shots and plays worthy of any team I have seen. Despite the widening lead of their opponent, Auburn played on valiantly.
At one point Auburn’s team Captain, Blake Loftin, shouted out loud enough for the crowd to hear, “I wish I could jump” as a rebound passed beyond his reach. The crowd erupted in applause at the words of someone who had every right to have a bit of self-pity. I don’t know Blake or any of the circumstances that led him to Auburn as a graduate student and the captain of his team.
However, I have studied leadership my entire adult life. I know it when I see it. Blake Loftin encouraged, challenged, and cajoled his teammates to do better, play harder and in their own way to jump higher. At that moment, I was immensely proud that he was part of the Auburn Family.
I cannot imagine the trials and tribulations all of these young men and women have gone through. But I can tell you what I saw that Saturday morning. I only saw athletes with skill and courage fighting hard to win.
To Blake Loftin, who wished he and his teammates could jump; I wish they could too. But I would submit that these inspiring athletes have already jumped higher than the most naturally talented basketball players could ever imagine. They are champions, one and all.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org